A confused author’s views on copyright

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C B Lucas discusses the laborious problems of obtaining permission from publishers and authors to republish diagrams and photographs and suggests solutions

Until recently, graphs and diagrams for publication had to be drawn in black Indian ink on tracing paper or white card at about twice the final published size. Shading could not be employed and so cross-hatching was used, for example to indicate solid areas. Considerable in-house work was then needed by the publishers to add any lettering and then use process engraving to produce the final blocks used for printing. An example is shown in figure 1, above, which shows a component of apparatus.

The introduction of computer software for making diagrams enables scalable vector graphics (SVG) files to be produced. I used the freeware program Inkscape and after only a little practice I was able to draw diagrams such as figure 2. I expect you agree that the use of graduated shading and a pattern makes the diagram clearer and more interesting.

I have produced a set of diagrams that are consistent throughout my book, with their own labelling to suit my text and with unwanted detail removed. For example, the atomic beam in figure 2 is shown as a dotted circle emitted to the right, so that it is consistent with other diagrams. I also designed my own patterns to indicate other liquids such as liquid helium and the solid material to be evaporated from ovens in vacuum. It is important to appreciate that no line on figure 2 has been directly derived from figure 1.

My diagrams have been designed for monochrome reproduction, but the software can accommodate the “colour on-line” now usually offered by journal publishers. If original photographs were not available, it is worth mentioning that I have used the freeware program Gimp to restore half-tone reproductions. This software can also do much more, such as improve contrast. The published results are indistinguishable from those obtained from original photographs.

Reproduction permission past and present

I note that books I purchased in my early research career make no mention of whether permission had been obtained to reproduce diagrams and photographs that were first published in learned journals. More recent ones just use the acknowledgements section to provide a general list of the sources of the material used.

When figure 2 was first published, permission was required from the copyright holder of figure 1, since my diagram is based on it. For republication in this article, permission to republish both figures has been obtained, since as author I transferred the copyright of figure 2 to the publisher, even though figure 2 is on my computer file and so is not copied from my book. To reproduce it here it was necessary also to acknowledge the original copyright holder. The figure captions are those required by the respective publishers who did, however, grant free republication without charge. It seems unlikely that any readers of this article are interested in the detail of the captions, so it is questionable whether they have to be included.

You may be surprised, as I was, that to use my figure 2 in my book, permission was needed from the copyright holder of figure 1. The same was true of nearly all my other redrawn diagrams that were based on published originals. The exceptions were a few from non-copyright sources. Although figure 2 is similar to figure 1, it is such an improvement over it, that I consider it to be my original drawing.

Why is permission necessary?

The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) lists details of the exceptions to copyright that allow limited use of copyright works without the permission of the copyright owner, for example for review and quotation. This is covered by ‘Fair dealing’ which unfortunately is subjective and so relies on court cases rather than being defined in copyright legislation. If material affects the market for the original work and the amount used is excessive, then fair dealing does not apply. This is unlikely to apply to a diagram or two taken from an original paper. The US Copyright Office also advises that fair use is unlikely to apply if the use is commercial. Hence it has become the accepted practice to apply for permission to reproduce diagrams.

Redrawing diagrams which are based on existing figures are not explicitly mentioned in either guidance. However if I make a drawing from the authors’ description of their apparatus, I presumably own the copyright? It seems a small step from there to sketch or photograph a piece of apparatus and produce a diagram for reproduction, or redraw a graph.

Obtaining permission

A useful source of information for authors wishing to understand the requirements for obtaining permission to reproduce published diagrams is the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM). It is the global trade association for academic and professional publishers. One of its stated principles is: 'To encourage publishers to permit the use of limited amounts of material in other published works without charge, and with a minimum of administration.'

STM publishes permission guidelines – which, however, unfortunately do not cover adaptations and re-drawing of figures and illustrations. As an FAQ explains in this connection: 'Adaptation of source material drawn from a scientific or scholarly journal requires editorial judgment and may involve aspects and facets beyond copyright, eg ethical as well as novelty/authenticity questions.'

These guidelines, although neither mandatory nor applicable, tend to be followed by publishers when granting permission. The amount of detail to be specified in the figure captions includes the title of the original paper. In reviewing the publications of others, most of this is detailed in the reference list anyway, but possibly without the paper title. Readers are unlikely to need the repeated information. However a check on recently published books shows that many publishers just state: 'With permission' and then link to the reference list for the source of reused diagrams rather than repeat the full information specified by the publisher.

Useful information on which publishers might offer the granting of republication permission can be obtained from the STM Member Directory. If a publisher has a tick in the column: 'Opting out of receiving express permissions (‘automatic’ process)', there is a reasonable chance, but no certainty, that online permission may be obtained by authors registering with the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). In all cases, participating publishers give the reference to their Internet site for permission information. CCC has a multiple part online form that requires detailed information beyond the title of the journal, its year of publication, the number of figures to be used and brief details of the intended republication.

In practice I found that I only obtained a few grants of permission from CCC. In most cases I had to contact publishers directly but, with the exception of one, I obtained free rights to use the diagrams I drew. However it was expected that at least one of the authors should be contacted as well. This became particularly onerous for early papers from overseas sources, but when I was able to locate authors, they all gladly gave their permission. In cases where I could not trace them, the publishers eventually agreed to waive their requirement. I discovered that some journals have not only discontinued publication but the publishers appear to have closed. A further stipulation from some publishers is that diagrams should not be modified. This was usually accepted as necessary because of the employment of SVG diagrams. However in some cases I had to send my proposed diagram for approval, which was then granted. Some publishers even requested the anticipated number of pages, cover price and print run before granting permission.


In summary, the whole process of obtaining permission to reuse photographs and also my own diagrams was time consuming. It required extensive tracing of copyright holders in some difficult cases, careful record keeping to check on the applications made in all cases, further correspondence in many and in just one, payment of a fee. Finally, I had to send a complete copy of all the permissions granted to my publisher for checking. The situation is now worse than it was years ago both for authors and publishers. A lot of effort is required for little financial return for anyone.

What is achieved by obtaining permission? It is usually granted free of charge. Any author reviewing the work of others will give the reference to it. If a diagram is included in the text, it is hardly likely to have come from any other source that the cited work and if it is, this will be stated. Hence the repeated reference is of no value to readers and has cost the author and publishers time and money. It is appropriate to wonder whether copyright holders do search publications to see if limited material is correctly acknowledged.


1. All publishers should adopt and extend the fair use guidelines to state explicitly that photographs, diagrams and graphs published in academic journals and books may be reproduced or redrawn without obtaining their permission, provided that the source is clearly stated if it is not evident from the reference to the published paper.

2. The request of also obtaining the permission of authors to reuse their material should be discontinued.

3. Rather than requesting that diagrams and graphs should not be modified, the wording: “Adapted from ….” should be acceptable.

The STM stated principle of involving a minimum of administration would then be achieved, to everyone’s benefit.


Figure 1

Reprinted figure 1 from Prodell A G and Kusch P Hyperfine structure of tritium in the ground state Physical Review 106, 87–9, 1957. Copyright 1957 by the American Physical Society.

Figure 2

Diagram adapted from Prodell A G and Kusch P Hyperfine structure of tritium in the ground state Physical Review 106, 87–9, 1957. Copyright 1957 by the American Physical Society and republished with permission of Taylor and Francis Group from Atomic and Molecular Beams: Production and Collimation by C B Lucas, 2013; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.