The History of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” Album Art

I had no intention of ever learning this much about Joy Division or pulsars, but because of my apt to be a law abiding citizen, I was forced to research the about the ubiquitous design made popular by the British band and artist Peter Saville for a t-shirt project I’m heading on SixPrizes.

In short, I thought it would be cool to make a spoof off this t-shirt:

However, I know from experience that you’ve got to be very careful when “borrowing” ideas from other people. In order to make sure the t-shirt parody project would get off without a hitch, I needed to make sure that I could get around the copyrights that Joy Division or Peter Saville may have on the design.

So I did the first thing anyone else would do… I checked ole trustworthy: Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia has a section about the packaging of the “Unknown Pleasures” album that gives the following information:

The front cover image comes from an edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy, and was originally drawn with black lines on a white background.[13] It presents successive pulses from the first pulsar discovered, PSR B1919+21—often referred to in the context of this album by its older name, CP 1919.[13] The image was suggested by drummer Stephen Morris[13] and the cover design is credited to Joy Division, Peter Saville and Chris Mathan.

From this description, I assumed that the Saville took diagrams from the book and superimposed them on top of one another to make the cool looking image.

But upon further research, this page from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy surfaced:

He straight up used the exact image for their album cover! I guess you could say there is some artistic thought expressed by inverting the colors and choosing the positioning, but it’s the same exact image!

Joy Division – “Unknown Pleasures” – Album Cover

I was dumbfounded when I discovered this. Here I was all stressing about copyright infringement… but now it looks like the image itself might have been infringed upon already!

I had to do some more research to find out more about the pulsar to find its true origin…

It turns out the diagram actually first appeared in a January 1971 issue of Scientific American, and is credited to Jerry Ostriker (thanks to this page for that info, though I’m not convinced Ostriker was the one that published the image).

Here’s what it looked like in that magazine:

The image then made a second cameo in Graphis Diagrams in 1974:

And finally, it appeared in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy in 1977, which is where Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris saw the design:

This brings me back to my original purpose for doing this research, and that was to find out if the image is copyright protected.

I went straight to the source and tried e-mailing Peter Saville to see if he had any comment on the matter. I wasn’t really expecting to get a response, but to my surprise his assistant Alice sent a prompt reply:

Hi Adam,

I write on behalf of Peter.
We understand the image as copyright free.
So believe you are liberty to do as you wish.

My best,


Now we’re on to something… I don’t necessarily take their word that the famous peaks and valleys are in the public domain (as I’m sure he’s made quite a pretty penny of them), but here are the facts:

  • The pulsar itself was first discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell
  • The image of its radio pulses first appeared in an American Scientific in 1971
  • It’s not clear whether the research team that discovered the pulsar created the graph, or if Ostriker (or someone else) just pieced together the data

There is a 1968 research paper listed on the CP 1919 aka PSR B1919+21 Wiki page, but I’m unable to access it, and I don’t have the original Scientific American magazine to read the description.

That 1968 paper could potentially include the graph, and I am unsure about Ostriker being the one that published the image because the American Scientific article has no mention on his publications page.

[EDIT: I found the Scientific American reference on this page instead, so that story checks out. I'm still not sure if Ostriker created the diagram or not.]

What makes it most confusing legal-wise is that I can’t tell if an American or non-American created the diagram, as each of those scenarios would have a different boding on the copyright law.

I’m not even sure if the image itself is protectable… it’s essentially plotted data, but there could be a case made that it’s arranged in a unique matter.

Then if it qualifies for copyright there are a bunch of different scenarios that could be gone through depending on the year it was published, where it was published, if proper copyright formalities were taken, etc…

Overall though, I’d say it’s a pretty safe assumption to treat the image as if it’s in the public domain. It’s been on the cover of a fairly popular album that’s been selling for over 30 years now. If someone was going to drop the law hammer, it would have happened by now.

The only way I can see getting in trouble for using it is if you were marketing a product as a collaboration with Joy Division or Peter Saville. As long as you make it clear there’s no connection, you’re golden.

All that… for a spoof t-shirt. What time does the bar close?

EDIT: The story unravels…

I got in contact with Jeremiah P. Ostriker, who as far as I could tell was the first person to publish the image. Here’s what he had to say about it:

Dear Adam Capriola,

First, I doubt that I created the image but most likely obtained it from a published source.

I think it highly unlikely that I own copywrite to the image but if I do I am happy for it to be used in any way that would increase public education.

best wishes,


So Mr. Ostriker does not appear to have created it. After hearing this I took a closer look at the second picture above from Scientific American, and this is what I can depict in the caption:

EIGHTY SUCCESSIVE PERIODS of the first pulsar observed, CP1919 (Cambridge pulsar at 19 hours 19 minutes right ascension), are stacked on top of one another using the average period of 1.33730 seconds in this computer-generated illustration produced at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. Although the leading edges of the radio pulses… [can't decipher the rest]

Now we’re on to something… I can’t believe I missed that earlier. The image was computer generated at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. I wish I actually owned the issue of Scientific American so I could read the full caption and see if the article gives any credits, but that’s some information to work with.

(I’m actually somewhat tempted to buy the SA issue on this site for $17.95…)

Facts at this point:

  • The pulsar itself was first discovered in July 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell of Ireland
  • The image first surfaced (as far as I know) in January 1971
  • The image was produced at the Arecibo Radio Observator sometime between then

There is one article that was published in February 1968 that could contain the image, but it’s doubtful. That article is located here and gives the following abstract and note:

Unusual signals from pulsating radio sources have been recorded at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. The radiation seems to come from local objects within the galaxy, and may be associated with oscillations of white dwarf or neutron stars.

1. Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge

This makes it extremely unlikely the illustration appeared in that 1968 publication as there is no mention of Arecibo (which is where the image was produced), so its appearance in the January 1971 issue of Scientific American is in all likelihood the first place it appeared for public consumption.

However… the question still remains: who owns the rights to the image (if anyone)?

Assuming the image was produced at the Arecibo Radio Observatory, here are some facts about said establishment:

  • It is currently operated by Cornell University under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (meaning it receives substantial government funding).
    • The exact quote from the Arecibo website is “A Facility of the NSF operated by Cornell University” which seems to suggest that NSF owns it and contributes major funding.
  • Arecibo received funding from the NSF as far back as 1967 according to this NASA article.
  • The original plan for the observatory was proposed to ARPA (now DARPA) in 1958 and subsequently a contract for building arrangements was signed between Cornell University and the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory (meaning it was government funded from the start).

With that in mind, copyright law does not protect works by government officers or employees as done part of their official duties (hat tip).

What is not clear to me is whether the persons working at Arecibo would be considered government workers… it seems like Cornell operates the facility, but most of it is paid for by the government.

More than likely, the people working there are considered contractors or grantees, and they ARE able to copyright their work.

Wrapping Things Up

I guess the last piece to the puzzle is whether or not whomever created the image formally copyrighted it. The image would have been produced between 1968 and 1970, and as per law at the time, it would have had to be published with a copyright notice to receive protection (unlike today where works are automatically protected).

The images above from Scientific American do not appear to have to have a © (copyright symbol), the word copyright, or date, which would have been required back then for protection.

Since image seems to have first been published in Scientific American and it’s missing those key elements, this leads me to be fairly confident the image is in the public domain.

I wish I had a copy of the January 1971 Scientific American, Graphis Diagrams, and Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy to double check if they give any copyright credits for the image, but if they don’t list an author, then it’s pretty much fair game.

I’m uncertain that the image was for sure first published in SA, and without the actual magazine the only reference I have is that it was produced at the Arecibo Observatory. Ostriker had to have obtained the diagram from SOMEWHERE, and if it was previously unpublished before his article, I guess him publishing it without a copyright notice or date has to mean it is public domain.

Otherwise whomever actually first published the image would have likely pushed legal action. And even if they didn’t ever publish it, unpublished work is automatically copyright protected so again, the original author would have likely filed a suit.

In closing, it would be nice to have an original copy of those 3 aforementioned works in front of me to see if they list any copyright, but with the information I’ve been able to gather, that’s the most logical conclusion I can come up with.


The image was first published in the US without a copyright (as far as I can tell) in the year 1971, so therefore it is in the public domain for failure to comply with copyright formalities of the time.

If you ever want to use the image for your own personal benefit, just make sure it’s clear you have no connection with Joy Division, Peter Saville, et al.

Update – December 28, 2012

I’ve received a message from F.X. Timmes of Arizona State University with a theory about the possible origin of the image:

it was common in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s to show stacked
timing profiles of pulsars as a way to visually analyze the subpulse
structures for patterns. my bet is that in 1969 or 1970 a summer intern
pulled the software crank on the latest data coming off the telescope
to produce what was a run-of-the-mill plot. somehow it got picked up …

Case closed?

  • Julian Silva

    At first I wasn’t a big fan of the design but after seeing Joy Division’s shirt in black I’m anxious to see the 6P shirt in black too! Will you make it in black or will you go with white only?

    I don’t know why changing the color scheme of the shirt, making white into black and white into black, drastically changes my opinion on the design but you got sold. Now I’m just patiently waiting. . .

  • Adam Capriola

    I might end up going black… I’m not sure! I do really like the black version too. I’m thinking we’ll print in white for the first run, then maybe later we’ll do a black version if there is enough interest.

    I should have more details on the shirts sometime tomorrow. I gotta call up some places and find out what the deal is… this one manufacturer I was planning to go with hasn’t returned any of my e-mail or phone calls the past couple days. :/

  • Boris de Vries

    This is a great article. I never thought there was such a story behind the iconic album art.. thanks a lot!


  • Adam Capriola

    Thanks and me neither… hah.

  • Sebas Ramirez

     Wonderful article…thanks a lot for the research!! I’m wondering if Jocelyn Bell knows about the second usage of that image.
     On general comment. Publications copyrights depends of the magazine and not of the place where the data were taken. And the authors of the article generally yield all rights to the magazine. Anyway (at least in the case of astronomy), there are some nice websites with articles published under CC license; articles in these websites (like arxiv, for example) use to be previous versions of an article accepted for publication in a regular magazine (like Nature, Science, A&A, ApJ, MNRAS…)
     And of course, each magazine has its own copyrights rules.

  • LUSITANO cavalo

    hi everybody, nice site for the “IMAGE” that will last forever.
    my wondwer know is about the symbol of the ” STILL” album. somebody knows?

  • Jacky Tran
  • Adam Capriola

    There are plenty of knockoffs out there:


    And I saw one from Urban Outfitters too (but can’t find the link).

  • David Shaw

    It’s a version of the Factory logo created by Peter Saville.

  • Gregg Tracton

    I have the J Ostriker article from SciAm, but the image caption has no mention of copyright — where are these generally noted?

  • Gregg Tracton

    I have a PDF of the article, not the paper version…

  • Jeremy Thomas

    Awsome article.

    I am sure that the T-Shirt is NOT an original – the original featured the design about 10cm square (4 inches), and no lettering whatsoever.

    As a perfectly normal Joy Division fan, I hope you take similar pleasure in reading this: 

  • Adam Capriola

    Copyright would generally be noted underneath the image (as part of the caption) or possibly at the end of the article. Maybe even at the back of the magazine as a footnote or something.

    I’d love to include the PDF here to make this article more thorough if you e-mail it to me:

  • Adam Capriola

    Thanks for the comment and sharing your article! Do you have an image of the original t-shirt?

  • Jeremy Thomas

    Probably the closest I can find. are a multitude of rip-offs out there, but the original is something that stuck in my head on a visit to London about 30 years ago. It was so stark and minimal, it’s something I never forgot.

    I’ve always viewed the larger prints, particularly with words on, as garish and completely missing the point of Saville’s original design.

  • Caroline Royce

    Fantastic, thorough research! My whole life the last few years have been shaped by this image. I always love to stumble on new information. I knew it was taken from the CEoA but before that…

  • Daniel Grünwald

    I have access to the academic articles: there is no such stacked graph in the 1968 Nature publication. And there is no citation in the graphic in the 1971 Scientific American article. It is customary to cite the source of an image or plot. So this indicates that the image was made by Scientific American. Also, being generated from data doesn’t make the image copyright free. Experimental data is protected—why build a billion-dollar experiment, if someone else can beat you to the analysis once the data is collected? And one’s graphical display of his data is certainly copyrightable.

  • Joseph O. Holmes

    Scientific American surely copyrighted the contents of that 1971 issue — all magazines had (and have) a legal copyright notice. Thus the copyright to that image is no doubt owned by the magazine.

  • Billy Allison
  • Billy Allison

    edit : thought you’d removed my comment .. damn my browser refresh

  • gfrblxt

    Now that’s interesting, because I saw Surfer Blood as an opening act for Pixies last October. Didn’t know they were so influenced by JD, but thinking about it a bit it makes sense.

  • ish

    Dude… It’s a Peter Saville design and you’re surprised that he appropriated the image?

  • esquared

    +1 or


  • Megan Curran

    “I wish I actually owned the issue of Scientific American so I could read the full caption and see if the article gives any credits, but that’s some information to work with.” Go to a library! Most academic libraries have print copies of Scientific American going back that far. You can look at the library’s catalog online to make sure before you make the trek.

  • Adam Capriola

    Good to know, thanks! I wasn’t dedicated enough to go the extra mile… I learned way more about the image than I intended to anyway.

  • Lilla Bognár

    Fantastic research, thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Adam Capriola

    You’re welcome!

  • Familiar


  • Familiar

    Interesting, but the article misses the point in all kinds of ways. It was common knowledge (at least, to those familiar with Joy Division and Saville’s work) that the image itself was appropriated from an original that was in the public domain. The interesting point here is not copyright, but the way in which an image can come to represent a concept such that it gains new meaning. When the intended audience sees this, they think, “Joy Division”, not “pulsar”. Hence, when you copy the image by way of Saville, you are appropriating the association that he has established. So, this isn’t about stealing images, it’s about riding on the coat-tails of a talented designer who managed to create a strong brand.

    A proper understanding of what’s going on here makes this sentiment: “If you ever want to use the image for your own personal benefit, just make sure it’s clear you have no connection with Joy Division, Peter Saville, etc…” pretty shiesty.

  • mrzrmx

    Did you ever saw this? I don’t know if could be dated precisely but if it’s true it predates the Scientific American publication in one year… but in fact I doubted it… It’s probably the first apropriation of the computer generated image.

  • Mark Dow

    I wonder if it might be in Thomas Gold’s seminal paper, as he worked at Cornell and Aricebo:
    “Rotating Neutron Stars as the Origin of the Pulsating Radio Sources”, Nature 218, 731-732 (25 May 1968)

  • Adam Capriola

    Possibly! Good detective work there. Anyone out there subscribed to Nature?

  • Chris Sherlock

    Not at all. If you want to use that stacked plot for things other than to be related to Joy Division, then I don’t see the problem. And if you want to use it to parody Joy Division, then you have a clear moral and legal right to do so.

  • Chris Sherlock

    Now removed!

  • Tom

    What if Peter Saville used a waveform, and not a pulsar? Does that mean that no one can render that waveform in anything unless they pay him? Seems a little silly to me. It’s kind of the same argument as someone trademarking a beat…you can’t do it because the copyright administration would be too complicated to implement, plus it’s such a generic thing.

    You could easily just find another image that looks kinda like that one and put it in there if you’re *really* that scared. No one is going to know and it seems like anyone who WOULD have done something about it…isn’t going to.

    So release the shirt already!

  • morph

    There are plenty of examples of Peter’s graphic design where he has used existing imagery or references within the overall piece, but it’s the context or how it has been used which is real idea behind his work, rather than the source image itself. If you visited his Design Museum retrospective 10 years ago you would have seen all the original reference materials, including the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, laid out to illustrate how he arrived at the final designs.

    When we revisited the Unknown Pleasures artwork with Peter for his book cover in 2003 ( ), there was a lot of conversation about the interpretation of the pulsar diagram, and to me it had always represented some kind of desolate alien landscape, which is when Peter pointed out that it had actually, by pure coincidence been used by Ridley Scott in “Alien” as a computer readout during the control room sequence to depict that very thing.

    A much later piece we worked on was an alternate version of the cover/packaging for New Order’s single “Crystal” whereby the entire CD (apart from where the metal layer containing music is printed) and it’s case, were “crystal” clear except for a red bar running across the front of the case ( ). At first glance it’s just a colour band similar to that which occurred on the album “Get Ready” from which the single was taken, however it’s in actual fact also a direct reference to the bars you get printed on glass doors in e.g. airports to stop you accidentally walking into them. I guess my point is that it’s when you dig a bit deeper and work out the meanings behind the imagery you are looking at and how it is being used in a particular instance, that you come to understand why he is such a highly regarded graphic designer.

  • Familiar

    Again, this isn’t about copyright, it’s about making money off a brand already established by others. Naturally, you can do whatever you want with the image; it just comes off as cheap when placed in the context of a parody. Even homage is pretty lame in certain cases such as this.

  • Familiar

    Hah! Talent borrows, genius steals, and the Internet makes everyone an expert.

  • Justin Standard


  • Peter Troxler

    nice story !
    to me the question really is: would this image fall under copyright in the first place, given it was a standard computerized operation to generate it?

  • Alberto Ortega
  • mikeu

    Antony Hewish gave an “invited discourse” at the XIVth General Assembly of the IAU in Aug. 1970. The adsabs link below is a French translation published in 1971 which contains the diagram annotated with the 318 MHz frequency that the Arecibo radio telescope was tuned to. I’ve had difficulty tracking down the English version, Highlights of Astronomy.…58H/0000062.000.html

  • Adam Capriola

    Great find! That would predate the Scientific American publication. And the creator is still unknown…

  • mikeu

    There are no diagrams in that paper.

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  • Mimmo Manes

    There’s also another interesting creation/utilisation, Pino Tovaglia, dated 1970

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  • Mister X

    Indeed! I still have my original no text, Unknown Pleasures T-shirt from back in the day, I wore it often and only two people in roughly 10 years, ever knew what it was.

  • deathisastar

    > my apt to be a law abiding citizen

    “Apt” is an adjective.

  • citynode

    Your spin on it is subjective, Adam Capriola’s is investigative although incomplete. I prefer Capriola, any day. When you say “common knowledge” you mean generally accepted and assumed, but that has nothing to say about the image’s actual origins. It doesn’t mean the assumption is correct, just common. You seem more interested in remixing and art theory and branding, which is fine for you, I suppose, if you find other people with those same priorities but I think it is pretty puerile and pedantic (you might say lame) and you’re liable to muck up a perfectly good discussion about the actual origin of elements of a work. Capriola’s T-shirt project will perhaps be “lame” (though … you should probably reserve judgement of a work until after you see it?) but he’s done something interesting with his research into the image.

  • jimsim /|

    really interesting, the psr1919+24, was nick name the little green man a referance to aliens, or gremlins some info. and the stacked timing profile also known as a fast frontier display, can easly be made with a amiga computer and sound master software. in hi res. so you don,t need to copy anything, make your own. just sample something and the programme draws it. I made one once of the funky drummer sample.

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  • Joseph Francis

    There seem to be two distinct designs on this page. Look at the bottom-most line. The t-shirt at the top of this page has a soft peak and a ramp down to the right. Most of the other images have a ramp descending to the right and then a small, distinct spike.

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