General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

Can mathematical diagrams be copyrighted?

Asked by LostInParadise (23473points) April 15th, 2015

I was planning on making a copy of a geometric diagram that gives a really nice pictorial presentation for the sum of consecutive cubic numbers. It is on page 58 of The Book of Numbers by John Conway and Richard Guy. The book is available on Google Books. Page 58 is accessible but not the diagram. Where the diagram would have been it says copyrighted image. Can they really do this? It would not be all that difficult to give a purely verbal description of the diagram. Would it be legal if I described the diagram on a Web page in sufficient detail that someone could reproduce it?

I was originally planning on putting the picture on a Web page intended for a small group of people in a math meetup. Using geometry software I have been able to create a copy on my own. I would guess that it should be legal to use the picture for a small group for educational purposes. I checked the Web to see if anybody else used the diagram. I found other pictures used to describe the equation, but not this one.

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6 Answers

dappled_leaves's avatar

Yes, I believe the image is copyrighted just like any other artwork. Certainly, to reproduce figures in books and articles requires the permission of the copyright holder, whether that is the artist or the publisher of the original work. It is usually easy enough to obtain permission (though it may take some time).

In my field, if you are re-creating the image in your own style, then you would typically have to request permission, then cite the original figure as something like “After Tennyson et al. 2012”. I don’t know if this tracks across disciplines or publishers.

If you are “copying” it verbally, that is a form of paraphrasing. It is sufficient to cite the author of the original work. I assume you would want to do that – after all, they managed to express an idea in a way you did not.

Darth_Algar's avatar

Just do it. No one’s going to know or give a shit even if they did know.

LostInParadise's avatar

I am inclined to agree with you, but it still came as a surprise that such a diagram could be copyrighted. It is not just about getting caught. I want to do what is ethically appropriate.

jaytkay's avatar

If you made a charcoal sketch of Notre Dame cathedral and put it in a book, you certainly wouldn’t want people copy it for their own books.

They have to go make their own drawings.

Darth_Algar's avatar


I believe what you have in mind would fall under “fair use” anyway.

LostInParadise's avatar

@jaykay, I agree, but this is no charcoal sketch of a cathedral. It is a relatively simple geometric diagram that I could duplicate using a geometry program. I have zero artistic skill. If I could duplicate the diagram, anyone can.

@Darth_Algar , I also think it falls under fair use. It is for a very limited educational purpose.

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