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]

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?

Update – January 25, 2015

Dr. Paul Abbott, physics professor of The University of Western Australia, has reached out with information regarding resources which were unavailable to me:

Hi Adam:

A friend, Simon Tyler, posted a link to your interesting blog post on the History of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” album art. As I have access to journal archives, I thought I’d check some things that you could not.

First, on the Scientific American January 1971 issue (not American Scientific as you had in two placed in your blog):

1. The rest of the missing Figure caption reads:

Although the leading edges of the radio pulses occur within a few thousandths of a second of the predicted times, the shape of the pulses is quite irregular. Some of this irregularity in radio reception is caused by the effects of transmission through the interstellar medium. The average pulse width is less than 50 thousandths of a second.

2. Unlike the hardcopy that you showed, and about which you wrote

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.


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.

the online archive has


printed on the bottom of page 53 (see attached).

3. The bibliography (page 122 of the same issue) lists the following references for Ostriker’s article

THE NATURE OF PULSATING STARS. Introductions by F. G. Smith and A. Hewish. Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1968.

ON THE NATURE OF PULSARS, 1: THEORY. J. P. Ostriker and J. E. Gunn in The Astrophysical Joumal, Vol. 157, No. 3, Part 1, pages 1395-1417; Septem­ber, 1969.

ON THE NATURE OF PULSARS, III: ANAL­YSIS OF OBSERVATIONS. J. E. Gunn and J. P. Ostriker in The Astrophysical Joumal, Vol. 160,No. 3,Part 1, pages 979-1002; June, 1970.

However, our library doesn’t have a copy of Smith et al. (1968) and the 2 issues of The Astrophysical Joumal are not in the (online) journal archives, but both are by Ostriker, and he appears to not claim the image.

Regarding the 1968 Nature paper:

You wrote

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.

I’ve checked the Nature paper and it does not include the graph.

Finally, a search for the images in Google Images does give the original source, but turns up some interesting examples of the use of this (copyrighted) artwork (appended below).


unknown pleasures cp1919 scientific american 1970

Update – February 19, 2015

It looks like F.X. Timmes was right: Jen Christiansen, art director of Scientific American, has completed the search and found (and interviewed!) the mystery man behind image the in this fantastic piece. Harold Craft, a Cornell graduate student working at Arecibo in 1970, captured what has since transcended into an iconic plot.