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Will the real Sam Illustrator please stand up?

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The Carbon Cycle. Image credit: The Auckland War Memorial Museum

In researching the carbon cycle recently, I came across the diagram above illustrating how carbon cycles through the atmosphere and into the ocean, through shells and rock, then magma only to be spewn out as gas into the atmosphere again via volcanoes. I thought it did a nice job of conveying the information, but I was curious to see how others depicted the same process, so I kept searching. Then I discovered this illustration:

Another strikingly similar carbon cycle diagram... say, whaaa???

Oddly similar, no?

The first was plainly credited to the Auckland War Memorial Museum but the second was hard to pin down. Incidentally, there was yet a third image that was almost identical to these two on a local county discussion forum. What’s going on here?

These three images would be what is known in copyright legalese as derivative works. Well, to be more accurate, if we could find out which one of them came first, the other two would be derivative works. I’m sufficiently buried in the illustration world that “derivative work” is a familiar term for me, but perhaps it is not for you. If you’re interested in a legal lecture, I can expound, but perhaps the quickest explanation I can give you is the Obama HOPE poster created for the 2008 election by Shepard Fairey. You may recall it was an instant icon. And you may also recall that shortly after its release it came to light that Fairey’s portrait was based off an AP photo of Obama taken by Mannie Garcia in 2006. Technically, since Fairey barely altered the photograph in his work, the HOPE poster qualified as a derivative work. In other words, if you put the two images side-by-side, your average joe would be able to tell that one was derived from the other. And since he failed to get permission from the AP, his use was not legal. Whoops.

Given this filter for determining whether a work is derivative, there is no question that the three carbon cycle diagrams I found are derived from the same source. But which came first? Hard to tell, since only the Auckland Museum image was credited properly (massive…. pet….. peeeeve…. ARG! Credit your artists, people! Harumph.)

Finally, with a bit more sleuthing, I was able to locate the source for the second version above. Lo and behold, it was part of a NASA publication on the carbon cycle from 2001. Aha! Mystery solved. NASA images, being funded with your tax dollars, are generally free to be used, built upon, or altered free of charge. So all you copyright lawyers can stop foaming at the mouth. These may be derivative works, but they are legal derivatives. If only all derivative cases had such happy outcomes!

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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