Chilean Miner Runs Into Copyright Spat With Chilean President Over Rescue Message

Should Chilean Jose Ojeda’s rescue note belong to the nation or to the miner himself?


A note that showed the world that the 33 Chilean miners were alive and well has become the center of a copyright tussle. The seven words, written in red ink on a scrap of paper, are considered by the Chilean President, Sebastian Pinera, to be part of his country’s national heritage. But the miner who wrote it, Jose Ojeda, wants it back.

Ojeda’s fellow countryman, writer Pablo Huneeus, has registered the phrase in Jose Ojeda’s name after he watched the President hand out copies of the message to world leaders during his European tour last week. “I thought, ‘That’s just too much,” he said. “According to our law, copyright for a creation, invention, song, a piece of art, belongs to the author.”

One of the most famous copyright spats of recent times concerns the iconic photo of Che Guevara. Taken by Alberto Diaz “Korda” Gutierrez 50 years ago, it became the center of a battle between the Cuban photographer and a vodka brand in 2001. After four decades of not being reimbursed for the image that made its way to a million student dorms and urban bedsits, he sued Smirnoff and re-established copyright. His daughter Diana has now licensed the image for products such as baseball caps, T-shirts and berets, and uses the revenue to fund her legal battle.

But a phrase is not an image. Imagine if Neil Armstrong had decided to register his “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” utterance after tripping onto the moon. Would there have been an outcry if he had done so? Who knows? In one way, President Pinera is right: the note is part of Chile’s heritage, and deserves pride of place in the country’s national archive, displayed in a museum. And this is part of the problem. Mr Ojeda wants his piece of paper back.

Perhaps a compromise could be sought: the paper goes to the nation, but ownership of the phrase goes to Mr Ojeda. A wise gesture, however, would be to share the proceeds that come from registering it, to the other 32. Readers, what do you think? Post your opinions below.

About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.