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The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 7, February 18, 2007, Article 2

NUMISMATIC CATALOG COPYRIGHT CONTROVERSY

The March 2007 issue of Maine Antique Digest has a great article by
David Hewett on a fracas among coin auction firms over copyrights to
numismatic catalog descriptions.

"A lawsuit filed in Texas has drawn the attention of the numismatic 
community. Its resolution may pose problems for the auction industry
as a whole.

"On November 7, 2006, Heritage Auction Galleries, Inc. of Dallas filed
suit against Superior Galleries, Inc. of California, charging copyright
infringement, unfair competition, and that Superior had flat out stolen
its printed catalog descriptions relating to coins. Heritage claims that
Superior “has reproduced and distributed, and is continuing to reproduce
and distribute, to the public, auction catalogs containing unauthorized
copies and/or derivative works of the Copyrighted Works that were
copied and/or derived from Heritage’s own catalogs and/or archives.”

"The battle between the numismatic heavyweights appears to have been
provoked by Superior’s hiring of former Heritage cataloger James Jones.
In 2005 Heritage took Superior to court and alleged trade secret
misappropriation, but that matter was settled “without any restrictions
on the former employee’s ability to work for Superior” (according to
Superior attorney Robert Rickman).

"For example, and to use one of the shorter descriptions cited in this
lawsuit, consider this from a Heritage catalog listing for a May 3,
2005, sale:

“1785 COPPER, Vermont Copper, ‘VERMONTS’. PCGS graded EF 40. Deep,
glossy chocolate-brown surfaces show minimal wear, just the normal
irregular strength of detail and modest planchet roughness. Listed
on page 68 of the 2006 Guide Book.”

"Heritage claims this is how either the same coin, or an identical
one, was described in the Superior catalog for a September 29, 2006,
sale:

“1785 COPPER. Vermont Copper, VERMONTS. AU 53 PCGS. RR-2. Bressett 1-A,
R.2. Deep, glossy chocolate-brown surfaces show minimal wear, just the
normal irregular strength of detail and modest planchet roughness.
Listed on page 57 of the 2005 Guide Book.”

"Some of the examples cited in the suit are brief but unmistakably
similar.

"Heritage describes a 1798 Flowing Hair dollar: “The centering is
virtually perfect, and the quality of manufacture is simply as good
as one could hope to find in a Flowing Hair dollar,” Heritage,
November 2, 2005.

"Superior describes the same: “The centering is virtually perfect,
and the quality of manufacture is simply as good as one could hope
to find in a Flowing Hair dollar,” Superior, September 29, 2006.

"Several examples of purportedly copied descriptions run to well over
300 words. Even those with no numismatic knowledge can detect the
similarities in those descriptions."

To read the complete article, see: Full Story

[The lawyers will have a field day with this mess.  Statements of fact
cannot be copyrighted, and a coin is a coin is a coin - if the design
is the same, the variety is the same, the history is the same, the grade
is the same, then catalog descriptions by two professional numismatic
cataloguers aren't likely to differ much. However, as noted in our
recent discussion about the purpose of auction catalogs, these
descriptions are not just about the recital of facts - they are
MARKETING TOOLS.  And marketing material lends itself well to
creativity.  Or should I put "creativity" in quotes?

The silver-tongued prose found in so many catalogs is there to peddle
the merchandise.  As a writer I would slit my throat if I were thrown
into a room and tasked with coming up with new and novel combinations
of adjectives to top "deep, glossy chocolate-brown surfaces show minimal
wear".  Unless I could have fun with it, of course:  "This chocolatey
turd of a coin is so new it's practically steaming."  But buyers and
consignors have little tolerance for humor, so it's back to the creative
puffery desk.  Kidding aside, War and Peace it ain't, but writing auction
catalog descriptions is hard, even when it's a coin that requires little
or no research.  Copying another firm's text without credit is the easy
way out and shouldn't be allowed to pass without comment.  -Editor]

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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