Do Springer Really care about Open Access? Or are they indulging in Copytheft?

I thought that Springer were among the more reputable of the major publishers when it comes to Open Access and authors’/readers’ rights but I am now disillusioned.

Two days ago I searched for one of my images published in the Journal of Cheminformatics. I was shocked to discover that it had been copied to Springer’s site, my copyright and co-authors had been removed, and that its licence (CC-BY) had been replaced by a CC-NC one. And, unless I am informed differently, Springer were selling it for commercial use.

The issue is slightly complicated because BMC are owned by Springer. But in effect this is a company misappropriating my work. I wrote to the editor of BMC, Matt Cockerill and was informed:

Peter, as per my response on Twitter [*], this is a technical error/bug in SpringerImage’s rather than anything more sinister.

The authors of course retain copyright, and the material remains CC-BY.

Our production team are working with Springer to resolve the issue as fast as possible, and to correct the erroneous copyright/license info introduced due to a defect in the conversion process.

Thanks for your understanding – I’ll let you know when it is sorted.


[*] The tweet was not addressed to me.

My simple browsing suggests that ALL my images suffer from this “bug”.

The points at issue are;

  • People who wish to use my images are either unable to or are paying Springer for something that Springer has no right to charge for.
  • The site is still up and people are still being denied my and their rights

I have (literally now) received the following:

Dear David [Wild, Ed J Cheminformatics] 

I have just tried to call you to discuss your concerns below. Please accept our apologies that the images appear to be licensed under CC BY NC while the original article is published under CC BY. This is obviously a mistake and boils down to a glitch at the website We will try to fix this as soon as possible. Our responsible IT colleagues in London are currently not in the office due to the Jubilee activities and we thus might require some more time to fix this, I am afraid. The wrong copyright line for some of the articles is something  we will investigate, too.

Please accept my apologies on behalf of Springer and BioMed Central. We will do everything we can to fix this as soon as possible.

Best regards



Bettina Goerner
Springer Science+Business Media

Manager Open Access

While I accept this explanation it shows serious problems with Open Access in large toll-access publishers. Whether an error or not it is technically copytheft. Pleading error when misappropriating rights and or money is no defence in court.

However I think it is more than simple error – I think it is an institutionalized failure to treat Openness properly. Failure leads to Springer charging people when they shouldn’t be charged and without their being able to challenge this – failure should benefit the customer , not Springer. It suggests there is no independent audit in place – which I would have felt was essential for a site which automatically aggregated other people’s content , relicensed and resold it.

To continue the institutionalized failure, here is what Springer describes as “fully open access” (the emphasis is mine):

Open Access

Diabetes Therapy is fully open access. Open access means that everyone around the world can read and download your article for free — no subscription or pay-per-view fees! Not only is the article open access, but all the interactive features are free to view too. And our authors keep their noncommercial copyright, so they can share their work freely with colleagues.

For readers: All articles are published under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License. You can read, redistribute and reuse the articles for free, as long as you cite the authors of the original work properly and do not use them for commercial purposes.

For authors: Upon acceptance of your article for publication, you will be required to pay the article open access fee of £150/$250/€175 per printed page. This will enable you to keep the copyright; you are simply assigning the exclusive right to any commercial use of the article to Springer. Your article will be immediately and permanently available with open access.

To be fair in 2012-01 Springer changed its hybrid author-pays OA licence from CC-NC to CC-BY . But if it is picking and choosing which OA journals are CC-NC and CC-BY it’s a broken policy.

And calling this “fully open access” is nothing short of violation of trade description.

So I need a considered response from Springer. If Springer can show they have an audit mechanism in place that will go a little way to making amends. I would like answers to the following:

  • How many objects in Springer Images have been mislabelled?
  • Has there been any audit of the site?
  • How much money has Springer taken for mislabelled material?

It’s easy to say it’s a bug. It’s also easy to set the site up (whether deliberately or not) so everyone pays for everything and it relies on someone like me to point out the problem. That’s unacceptable.

If I misappropriated Springer material they would be on me like a shot. But there is no-one to defend the public domain and CC-BY. That’s why copytheft is so common and so profitable (whether deliberate or not). There’s no penalty even when you are found out and you keep the money you have made.

So maybe Springer are trying hard. But since there is no regulation in #scholpub we can expect poor quality, poor value and worse.



SpringerOpen – Springer’s portfolio of peer-reviewed open access journals

Our SpringerOpen journals cover all subject areas in science, technology and medicine (STM). All articles are published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license, enabling authors to retain copyright to their work.


Except for Diabetes Therapy (and no doubt more).

And why, if Springer make such a fuss about CC-BY (which they should) are they creating an image resource protected by CC-NC so they can exploit them?

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6 Responses to Do Springer Really care about Open Access? Or are they indulging in Copytheft?

  1. Springer is a commercial, for-profit company. The CC-BY license grants commercial rights, with no obligation on the recipient except for attribution. If you want your work freely given to remain freely given, you should use CC-BY-SA (Sharealike). I hope that you succeed in convincing Springer to change their ways, but would it really be better if it was another company rather than Springer?
    Another point on Springer and open access: while they are in some respects a leader in developing open access, they also freely admit that they are lobbying against open access mandate policies. It is high time OA advocates began calling them on this; they’ve been riding the BMC OA goodwill coattails far too long.

    • pm286 says:

      I do not believe CC-BY permits reassignment of copyright.

      • Nihiltres says:

        The CC-BY license doesn’t permit reassignment of copyright, but it doesn’t put any restrictions on derivative works. It seems possible (I am not a lawyer) to legally use a CC-BY work in a derivative all-rights-reserved* one, so long as the restrictions (attribution) are carefully followed for the CC-BY portion of the work. (*I suppose that it’s nearly-all-rights-reserved, hah.)
        In this case it doesn’t apply, since Springer hasn’t a) created a derivative work or b) followed the CC-BY license.
        In any case, it’s slimy and Springer should be shamed for it, if not sued. It’s too bad that the CC-BY nature makes suing impractical—freely licensed is not the same as public domain, and more people need to understand the distinction.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Let me fix that statement for you:
    CC-BY does not permis reassignment of copyright.
    This is not up for discussion or open to interpretation. It just doesn’t.

  3. Pingback: Springer are digging themselves deeper into a hole « Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week #AcademicSpring

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