Nanos Gigantum Humeris Insidentes

By April 27, 2009 No Comments

By Guillaume Proux, Vice President, Asia, Scala

Guillaume Proux

Let me apologize for the length of this article… I still hope it will keep you entertained!

 “Content is King” is so much of a commonplace that it nowadays almost sounds tautological. I remember being astonished seeing this in the slide sets of my esteemed colleague Jeff Porter when I joined Scala over five years ago. It should have been completely obvious that in a fast-moving world like the one we live in nowadays, to turn the retinal impression into a lasting impression, one needed to offer to the viewers nothing but the greatest and most gorgeous content that good money could afford… Apparently this concept wasn’t yet understood at that time and it is still foreign to many today and in very egregious ways.

The-kiss Last week, on a brief visit to Seoul for an interview with a national newspaper about future trends in technologies, the subject invariably turned to the subject of sourcing good contents. During the day, we visited a number of local Korean content companies creating digital content for the web and digital signage. One of the company that we visited IMTarts ( was a small company specialized in producing realistic looking (natural touch) and fully licensed copies of famous paintings. During the visit, we could see a perfect rendition of the Kiss of Gustav Klimt ( drying on an easel. Even from a distance, the paint strokes and the resulting volumes that makes paint such a distinctive work of art gave such a realistic look to the painting that any novice in the fine arts would probably think being in front of an original. Who wouldn’t crave hanging a Klimt in their lobby?

 Left in bewilderment among hundreds of famous paintings, worth a fortune if only they were real, and while touching the canvas of printed versions of Millet’s or Van Gogh’s most recognizable art transporting me back to my younger years, I was barely overhearing the ensuing conversations between my host and the manager of the company where we stood. Mind you, the little Korean I know is barely enough to order spirits in a bar but historical cultural proximity between Japan and Korea (proximity unfazed by maybe centuries of rivalry) has made it that many words in both languages with a common origin in the Chinese language sound vaguely similar. As my brain was constantly trying to grasp and analyze visual and audio cues to help me follow the conversation, one word came out clear in the white noise: 저작권 (“jeojakkkwon”). I knew the words in Japanese of course: Pronounced chosakuken and usually written in Chinese characters “著作権”, the melody of the word was the same in unfamiliar Korean and now-familiar Japanese.

The meaning of this word, you ask? Copyright. 

Here I was thousands of miles away from home hearing a conversation about a subject very dear to me: copyright. The question was about the kind of fees associated with obtaining high resolution digital images of famous art works… Most art collections being behind closed doors with explicit “Photography forbidden” signs, is it really possible to use those without paying a fee? Many would indeed feel intimidated because the verb “to  copy” almost invariably has a negative meaning in our society. It wasn’t always the case though.

Consider me: born in the Information Age, I grew up in Paris suburbs, frequently stealing one day of the week-end to run up to the capital and dwell hours at a time in joy and in the long halls and corridors of Le Louvre with its hundreds of galleries and thousands of works of art for everybody to observe at length or just for a glimpse, to bathe your mind with beauty and culture. And all that for free! What a bargain. Like many kids, I also loved purchasing postcards with the reproductions of the paintings or sculptures that had impressed me the most that day. I would get a whole museum just for myself for a few cents. I would then spend hours over a piece of half transparent paper to separate the colors of a Van Gogh with a fine stroke of my pencil and then trying to make a copy by myself just for myself.

Little did I know at that time I was enjoying the rights embodied within all works of art fallen in the Public Domain.

It was really a few years later that I started learning about copyright (or rather its French counterpart “le droit d’auteur”) when as the owner of a brand new Commodore Amiga computer and a few blank floppy disks, I was looking for the best way to feed the beast. When my Piggy Bank was desperately empty, I kept entertained watching demos, showcasing the best of the computer capabilities. Those demos, created mostly by other teenagers, were legally distributed over the postal network (talk about digital signage!) and even online bulletin board system and the more got distributed, the more successful the program and its programmers. Many years later I would buy the CDs of the artist who started his musical career on the Amiga goofing around.

My attachment to public domain grew thanks to the work of Fred Fish, a computer programmer who was making compilation of free software programs and releasing them on a monthly basis for all computer enthusiasts around the world to share. His Fish Disks were an incredible example of what the public domain has to offer and helped thousands of people around the world become more productive with their computers. Some people built businesses reselling Fred’s work but all I gained was an immense intellectual wealth. We could share knowledge and as Einstein famously remarked… when one give an idea to another, both now have the idea and none of them get any poorer. On the contrary, each of us is getting richer, if only in the mind.

In 1993, as I was given access to the Internet for the first time, browsing the Web with Mosaic and contributing to some projects related to my hobbies, I started getting familiar with various copyright licenses, their limits and the reason for their existence. My friends were installing Linux on their systems to mimic the serious but very closed and proprietary Sun workstations. Richard Stallman (of the GNU project) visited our campus for a conference about Free Software and as we listened to this American guru not only able to perfectly express himself in French but also able to discuss with ease about fine points of Copyright laws, we were given the opportunity to think of software as free thinkers and not only as users or consumers.

Actually and at about the same time, Netscape was making its record breaking IPO. Microsoft, who after spending a few years dismissing the Internet, eventually recognized the threat on their desktop dominance. Using anti-competitive means to break Netscape, it led them to spend some times in a court to try and defend their indefensible position. Being a young graduate in communications technology, that battle was fascinating. I spent hours reading court documents (per se in the public domain), understanding some of the techniques and tricks used by great lawyers and eventually culminating in the release of Judge Jackson’s Finding of Facts and its order that Microsoft be broken up ( Thanks to Judge Jackson’s very well articulated opinion, I became somewhat of a Law Geek and never bored at reading court documents and judge opinions. So, when SCO attacked IBM about the UNIX copyrights, I was checking on for my legal daily dose of legal drug.

My fascination for all things legal grew, but Copyright became a favorite subject of mine. It is probably because it is so pervasive in our lives (did you know that the famous Happy Birthday song is claimed to be under copyright for another 26 years in the US?) and yet very few people understand the delicate intricacies of copyright. There isn’t a day without new polemics or a new question left unanswered in the copyright field. Fortunes have been built based on the protection delivered by copyright. Those fortunate to have amassed such a wealth are now looking for always expanding powers to keep those exclusive rights to them, resulting in laws such as the 1998 Copyright Extension Act (also called Mickey Act because it was entered into law just in time to prevent Mickey Mouse to fall into the public domain). Like many people, Lawrence Lessing’s failed attempt in Eldred v. Ashcroft to have this law declared unconstitutional left me in dismay.

As part of my employment in Scala, I was lucky to come and visit Philadelphia, the cradle of American Democracy where the United States Constitution was adopted. Article 1 precises “The Congress shall have power […] To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;”

Thanks to its Constitution, America and of course the rest of the world benefits from a very large public domain as “exclusive rights are secured for limited times” upon which we can everyday source for building or deriving new works. “Nanos Gigantum Humeris Insidentes”: Dwarves standing upon the shoulders of giants. Just like Newton built upon Descartes work, we should enjoy the legacy offered to us by humanity and celebrate centuries of accumulated knowledge by knowing how to better use the works of art now fallen in the Public Domain.

One painful issue is that it is very difficult to know which work is still under copyright and which work has now fallen in the public domain. However, a rule of thumb is that any work published before 1923 is in the public domain in the United States. The word “published” here is important as unpublished works are covered by different rules.

Also, it is clear since 1999 (if that wasn’t before) that photography or mere reproductions of public domain works do not afford any protection under the US copyright regime (Decision in Bridgeman vs. Corel Corp) as they are clearly not original.

So coming back to my Korean host… He can now rest assured that he won’t have to pay any fee for most of the paintings he was considering showcasing in his digital signage based museum. But by adding substantial creative elements to the paintings (multi-language explanatory texts with on-screen outlines), he will create enough original content that the resulting work will certainly afford copyright protection and can now be licensed for a fee. This is the virtuous circle of copyright.

Public Domain will enable him to promote the progress of useful arts in his own way by letting him provide educational content for all to enjoy on a network of digital signs and be compensated for it. I hope to see this kind of digital signage museum more often and in many places just like the NASA Viewspace exhibit (see  produced using public domain NASA pictures and displaying fresh content daily in hundreds of locations worldwide all that powered by Scala software of course.

As the conclusion, I hope I have encouraged you, dear reader of the Scala blog, to celebrate the public domain and to start showcasing more public domain work on your digital signage networks (even if you don’t yet run Scala) to keep knowledge and our culture vibrant and also perhaps to demonstrate to legislators that we are all interested in that a careful balance exists between the interests of a few estates and the general public resulting in a healthy growth of the public domain.