I've just recently had a discussion with a coauthor while I was preparing an article for submission. For comparison between two effects, I had wished to use an image (a simple line graph) from another article (after getting the required permission), but my coauthor seemed to disagree. They said that we should simply use a digitizer to sample the points of the graph, as the image has copyright, but the data exists within the public domain once published, then we replot and publish with a citation.

This seems odd to me, and raises the question, to what end could this work? I see this making sense if we are constructing a plot with multiple components, but here we would just be reconstructing a plot nearly verbatim. Further, if we had an automated digitizer and ploted the retreived data with similar axes, this method would approach a simple copy and paste, which obviously requires copyright permissions.

So, in general, is this a true statement, and valid opinion, or would copyright still be required?

  • 2
    This needs clarity. Is your co-author suggesting digitizing the graph itself or is the data available otherwise. If the former, you are creating a derived work which also requires copyright permission.
    – Buffy
    Mar 12 at 0:08
  • The question seems to be more appropriate for a lawyer specializing in the copyright law of your jurisdiction. In general, don't trust legal advise given by someone (or something) on the internet. Mar 12 at 8:25
  • 1
    I know this is not what you're asking, but what exactly is the downside of using their image? Why is your co-author so desperate to deprive other people of credit for their work? It's not like citing their graph would in any way diminish your contribution. Mar 12 at 11:55
  • given that this isn't legaladvice but academia: you'd still be plagiarizing imho
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 12 at 14:06
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    @Hobbamok " then we replot and publish with a citation." this part remove most of the concerns about the plagiarizing. They are simply replotting a line graph somewhere on their plots...
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 12 at 14:59

1 Answer 1


It depends on the copyright laws of the country. Apparently in the US the plot is copyrighted, the underlying data not (and with good reasons and argumentations).

Automated digitizers exist and are widely available (I’ll let others chip in about the goodness of the values obtained).

  • 1
    Value goodness indeed. In what situation would we • find it important to have numerical data but • think it's adequate to get that numerical data from a pixel counter?? Mar 12 at 17:37

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