I've noticed for some time that ProQuest PDF copies of historical newspapers, even from the 19th Century, are marked at the bottom of each page "Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission."

This doesn't make much sense to me for contents that would themselves be in the public domain due to copyright expiration.

After searching, I see this statement on a ProQuest-owned site, claiming that even for documents in the public domain, "the electronic versions of these texts are the copyright of ProQuest Information and Learning".

Are the PDFs themselves truly copyrightable if they add no creative content, other than the copyright notices? Can they plausibly claim that even pixel-perfect screenshots of the PDFs are somehow in violation of their copyrights, when the original scanned documents would no longer be in copyright?

  • Something I just realized -- this is outside the scope of the question, but they could perhaps sidestep copyright. That is, they could perhaps make it violate their TOS to copy from them, as described in law.stackexchange.com/questions/24625/… . I guess the penalty, if any, would depend on the TOS. – Jacob C. says Reinstate Monica Dec 7 '18 at 21:07

Not in US law, at least. Under the 1999 decision Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp (36 F. Supp. 2d 191) such images are not protected by copyright. As the Wikipedia article says, the court here

ruled that exact photographic copies of public domain images could not be protected by copyright in the United States because the copies lack originality. Even though accurate reproductions might require a great deal of skill, experience and effort, the key element to determine whether a work is copyrightable under US law is originality.

This decision has been generally followed in US copyright law thereafter. At the time it was claimed that UK law took a different view, but I understand that more recently the UK also follows the Bridgeman rule, although I cannot confirm that at the moment.

See also this article about the Bridgeman case and its effects.

The service probably puts that notice onto all its newspaper reproductions, not checking which ones are from originals still under copyright.

EDIT: As some comments point out, the formatting used to present the digital version, if not a slavish copy of the original newspaper, might be original enough for copyright protection. Therefore one should copy only the digitized text, or elements obviously a direct copy of the original newspaper which is in the public domain. The digitizing service will not get any copyright on the original text or images, even if the formatting has enough originality for protection.

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  • 1
    As to your last para. There is no requirement that such notices are true. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Dec 6 '18 at 9:17
  • PDF is a format with a lot of options available, and it's possible that there's enough originality in the PDF file to be copyrightable. It may be best to just take the images from the PDF file and use them. – David Thornley Dec 6 '18 at 17:40
  • @MartinBonner to put it another way, they can claim copyright even if the claim is unenforceable. – phoog Dec 6 '18 at 19:56
  • Yes they can and some do. (And the claim is not just unenforceable, it is false.) But my point was that this may not be aimed at claiming copyright for PD works - most to the time this service is used, it is probably for newspaper editions still in copyright, and they just don't bother to distinguish. That is just my guess, of course. – David Siegel Dec 6 '18 at 20:17
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    @Jacob C. While I am not sure enough of it to put it in the answer, I rather think that most nations will follow the logic of Bridgeman. The 2nd decision in Bridgeman itself argues that the UK will follow the same logic. But answers giving sources for the rule in other countries would be helpful. For what it si worth, The Wikimedia Foundation and Wkimedia commons follow the Bridgeman rule in determinign when an image is PD worldwide. – David Siegel Dec 7 '18 at 22:25

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