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Alfred Russel Wallace’s letters go online, with a very buried CC license that maybe doesn’t apply anyway

The letters of Lord Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, are now online. As the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project explains, the collection consists of 4,000 letters gathered from about 100 different institutions, with about half in the British Natural History Museum and British Library.

The Correspondence Project has, admirably, been releasing the scans without waiting for transcription; more faster is better! Predictably annoyingly, the letters, written by a man who died ten years before the Perpetual Copyright date of 1923, seem to be (but are they?) carefully obstructed by copyright: The Natural History Museum, which houses the collection, asserts copyright over “data held in the Wallace Letters Online database (including letter summaries)” [pdf oddly unreadable in Mac Preview]. Beyond the summaries, exactly what data is this referring to? Not sure. Don’t know.

But that isn’t the full story anyway, for the NHM sends us to the Wallace Fund for more information about the copyright. That page tells us that the unpublished letters are copyrighted until 2039, with this very helpful footnote:

Unless the work was published with the permission of his Literary Estate before 1 August 1989, in which case the work will be in copyright for 70 years after Wallace’s death, unless he died more than 20 years before the work’s publication, in which case copyright would expire 50 years after publication.


Eventually it gets to some good news:

Authors wishing to publish such works would ordinarily need to obtain permission from the copyright holder before doing so. However, on July 31st 2011, in an attempt to facilitate the scholarly study of ARW’s writings, the co-executors of ARW’s Literary Estate agreed to allow third parties to publish ARW’s copyright works non-commercially without first having to ask the Literary Estate for permission, under the terms and conditions of Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported”

So, are the letters published on the NHM site actually available under a Creative Commons non-commercial license? The Wallace Fund that aggregated them seems to think so. The NHM that published them maybe thinks not.

Because copyright is just so magical.


TWO HOURS LATER: Please see the first comment, from George Beccaloni, Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project. Thanks, George.

He explains that the transcribed text is available under a Creative Commons non-commercial license, but the digitized images are not. Plus some further complications, such as the content of the database being under copyright, although it is not clear from the site what data that is.

Since the aim of CC is to make it easier for people to re-use material, may I suggest (in the friendliest of fashions) that this be prominently clarified on the sites themselves?

7 Responses to “Alfred Russel Wallace’s letters go online, with a very buried CC license that maybe doesn’t apply anyway”

  1. Dear David,

    Unfortunately British copyright law is rather complex, but we at the Wallace Correspondence Project believe that we have explained the situation accurately thanks to help from two IPR experts. What you need to understand is that the copyright of the literary content of a document may be (and in the case of Wallace Letters Online, usually is) different to the copyright of the image of the same document. Thus the text may be the copyright of the Wallace Literary Estate (and therefore may be reproduced non-commercially without permission under the terms of the Creative Commons license you mentioned), but the image of the letter may be copyright of the British Library. Unless BOTH the British Library and the holder of the copyright of the literary content of the document agree that a third party can reproduce the image then they can’t do so without infringing copyright. I have heard that the copyright law in the UK might be changing soon for the better – i.e. that the 2039 rule will be done away with and most old documents (like the ones we are dealing with) will no longer be in copyright as regards their literary content. Recent images taken of them will still, however, be in copyright to the creators of these images. Note that reason that text in certain fields of our database (e.g. in summary and notes fields) is copyright of the Natural History Museum, is because it was written by project staff. Also note that data in databases is also protected by a different set of laws which are independent of copyright – see Oh, for a simple life!

    Best wisges,

    George Beccaloni
    (Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project)

  2. Thank you, George, but for this explanation and for your work.

    I’ve appended a comment to the post itself.

  3. Dear David,

    Yes, I think we can make the situation a bit clearer – I’ll put it on my ‘to do’ list. And yes, the transcribed text of letters written by Wallace can be reproduced non-commercially without permission under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons license mentioned above.

    Best wishes,


  4. Just a little historical correction. Alfred Russel Wallace was not a “Lord” (nor a “Sir”) and would have likely found that his induction into the peerage was akin to giving Guy Fawkes an Knighthood for advancements made in the field of pyrotechnics.

  5. Thanks, Jerry. I have relieved him of his peerage. I don’t know how I got that phrase in my head.

  6. You must understand that David works for an academic think tank which is paid by a large corporation — Google — to promote copyright minimization. So, he naturally is interested in finding ways to minimize the rights of the copyright holder.

  7. It’s occasionally worth noting that Brett’s concerns are unfettered from fact. I am paid nothing by Berkman, and Berkman is not paid by anyone to promote anything. An unfortunate but typical necessity of academic research centers is that they need to accept outside funding to pursue projects, and Google has supported a few Berkman projects, but none (as far as I know) concerning copyright. And none with any strings attached.

    Then there is the larger question worth asking once we get past Brett’s incessant, false ad hominem attack: Does Brett really oppose making Wallace’s letters from before 1913 (when he died) openly available?If so, why on earth?

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