Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Copyright and Old Stuff

Do you ever get the feeling that the whole issue of copyright is completely out of control? The ease with which things can be reproduced, and the various media in which they can be reproduced, have led to endless churning debates in which nobody really seems to have clear, legally sound answers. On the one hand there are the anything goes brigade, who seem to think that because an object is old, any reproduction of it should be copyright free. On the other hand, there are publishers and custodians of material who seem to believe that they have rights over any reproduction of anything that they have ever owned, or anything that resembles anything they have ever owned.
There are so many hypotheticals that can reduce the debate to a shambles. For example, if I decide to put a picture of my living room on my social networking page, and I happen to have a painting by a living artist or a published print on my wall, am I supposed to pay them a royalty? If I take a picture of a major heritage monument from the same place and in the same weather conditions as that in a coffee table book, will they accuse me of piracy? On the other hand, if I take their picture and work some digital jiggerypokery on it, will they hunt me down for pinching the source material, and anyway, how would they know, given that it is a large, public, inert object?
The issue arose with me recently concerning some illustrations of museum material, which had nothing to do with medieval manuscripts as it happens, in which a publisher asserted that illustrations of museum objects were copyright to the museum and permission had to be sought to publish them. Now as it happened, those illustrations were drawings derived from photographs which I had taken myself, but as I had taken the photographs in the museum under the condition that I sought permission if I were ever to publish them, I had actually sought that permission. However, to my way of thinking, that is not copyright, that is contractual obligation, not to mention common politeness. I believe that is an important difference, as I would seriously doubt that ancient objects themselves can be copyright.
I have had some occasional correspondences with libraries, and with users of Medieval Writing, over this issue in relation to the reproduction of medieval manuscripts. There are some who believe that because manuscripts are old, that they are not copyright. However, the photographs of those manuscripts may be subject to copyright restriction, and libraries may place conditions of use on photographs which are either purchased from them or taken with their permission within their walls. For photographs published in books, that is covered by copyright. For photographs taken by a user or purchased from the institution, I would assume that, like the museum objects, that would actually be covered by contractual obligation.
However, photographs have been around for some time now, and I remain quite unclear about the copyright status of old photographs found in somebody's bottom drawer, which they have handed on to me because they thought I might find them useful. I remain unclear about copyright claims that are couched entirely in the terms of print media when internet reproduction is different in so many ways. And I remain unclear about the actual rights of museums and libraries over the objects and their representation, as opposed to the reproduction of those objects under conditions which are clearly specified by copyright or contract.
I try to work within what is legal, and fair to both curators and users. There are a number of very important libraries and archives now that are putting up very impressive digital editions of manuscript material on the web, free for all to use. This makes material available to scholars and interested parties who might not otherwise be able to get access, and it does aid conservation by reducing handling of the originals, but it does cost money. What needs to be avoided is putting this material into the hands of corporations which have the objective of making profits, not increasing access to cultural heritage.
Meanwhile, the latest edition to the website is a script sample and paleography exercise of a bit of 13th century Gothic textura, full of speculative historical romance and devoid of copyright issues.

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