Digital rent-seeking

I’m preparing illustrations for my book on the history of debates about money and value, which the University of Chicago Press will be publishing next year. Apparently they’re having the type hand-drawn by irish monks.

For those who’ve never done it, this is how it works. For every illustration, you need to “secure permission.” Sometimes this is really easy. Things published before 1928 are generally out of copyright, because copyright can’t be renewed infinitely, at least not yet. 1 Sometimes it’s hard to secure permission. You hustle and hustle to track down whoever owns an image, or claims to own it, and find that they want to charge you a lot of money to use it.

An edition of the New York Times published in 1910 is in the public domain. The New York Times no longer owns it. Should be a clear cut case.

But, the digital edition of the NYT is different. Somehow, from sources that are not entirely clear, the Times was fully digitized—great! But whoever digitized it, and built a website to handle the digitization, wants to get paid for their work. Fair enough!

I wanted to use an image of J.P. Morgan from November of 1910, over 100 years ago. This is what it looks like in pdf., from ProQuest Historical Newspapers:

To use it, I had to fix the of gaps that appeared and tweak it in photoshop. In some lines of argument, altering an image substantially makes it a new image and thus not subject to copyright, Not sure this qualifies.

“Pars International,” the outfit that handles permission for the NYT, wants to charge me $460 to use this image in my book. They call this an “image preparation fee.” Of course, if I found a copy of the NYT from 1910, I could do whatever I wanted with it, including reprint it, because it’s out of copyright.

Now I agree that whoever digitized the NYT should be compensated. And in fact they already are, through the hefty fees ProQuest charges universities for the use of the database. This $460 dollars appears to be pure gravy for the New York Times. I found a better image in the public domain, and will probably use that instead. I’d rather spend the $460 on craft beers and guitar strings.

I suppose an economist would say “the NYT has something of value, something you want, and so it charges for it, welcome to markets 101″ But you could also look at this as a classic example of “enclosure of the commons,” the process by which things once regarded as public property are fenced off behind profit walls.

By traditional notions, the thing I write about—American history —doesn’t belong to anyone. Or if it does, it belongs to all of us. It’s a common heritage. Or was.

As much as the digitized past offers advantages, there will be constant pressure to enlose it, and put the materials of the past on a pay per view basis. University presses are no allies in this fight: in my experience they’re so leery of lawsuit that they’ll demand that authors find someone to give permission, even incases where no permission is required. The University of Chicago Press has been particularly bad in this regard. This is yet another argument for never publishing a conventional, paper book again.


  1. You can’t copyright Moby Dick. You can copyright a specific edition of Moby Dick, with your edits and introductions and illustrations, but the text is in “the public domain.”

5 Comments

  • You’re just scratching the surface of what’s an extremely ugly issue. Take the difference between images to be reproduced in dead tree books vs. ebook editions. The French National Library, for example, wanted only around 100 euros from me to reproduce eight images in black and white in the printed version of my book. This is actually an amazingly good price and far lower than many other, extortionate libraries — I’m looking at you, NYPL. But publishers today also want authors to secure image rights for ebook versions, which can require an entirely separate license and fee. In this case, the French National Library wants — wait for it — 1400 euros, and that’s only for five years. All for the privilege of reproducing tiny little images in stunning 72 dpi B&W. Meanwhile, I already have super hi-res 50 MB tiff files of these images that could, say, wind up on BitTorrent, for the discerning filesharer. So stupid.

    All of the originals in question are over two hundred years old, but they were photographed by the holding libraries, which do not permit outside photography. I understand that the libraries need to recover the cost of reproducing the images, but I already paid for the photography and the media. It’s not entirely clear to me what the library is trying to achieve here, other than to dissuade me from ever using their images again. Mission accomplished!

  • ahhh the joy of derivatives… some fine art museums own the copyrights on famous paintings, although the paintings are in the public domain. hence a lot of no photograph policies in museums. Some employers in the engineering field lay a claim to any technical innovation within their market area or not – afraid their “core” expertise might lead to an advance in another area and feel it is there right to protect this potential profit.

    Ditto in the music realm where remixes cause a lot of consternation. Imagine if the individual letters of the alphabet were copywritten …. or the individual notes. Coming from the fine arts, Im flummoxed in both directions here. There was even recently an artist who created paintings based on the published photographs of a photographer. Now a shift of medium does entail a change of some manner and so something unique is somewhere in the paintings, but the “artist” received sales of 1/2 million or so for ripping off the photographer’s photographs , who was in some ways ripping off the public realm by taking the photograph in the first place.

    You’re right copyright issues are significant to our societies development. They will possibly change our ability to find new relations within a given “database” of perceived data, while also impacting the measure of effort required to attempt to discover something new whether relationship or nugget of data. It is a real concern and I’m not quite sure where the balance will end up teetering.

    Hopefully there are libraries that still hold onto original publications …

    I think the nexus is in perceiving of history or art or music as a data mine. Maybe it is just a shift in where profit occurs – manufacturing vs access, or maybe it’s simply the difference between pure science and applied science? I think you’ll find its impact (the questions of copyright) as significant as Marx’s on how we perceive and act in our future.

  • I worked at the Washington Post and looked into this (chatted with coworkers, chatted with colleagues at the NYT, it’s a small world) when I learned that ProQuest had digitized the archive of the Washingtons Post and Star. The general deal is that ProQuest does the work to digitize the archives on the agreement that they get to host and sell digital copies, the revenue from this being split somehow between them and the paper.

    This scanning is also the source of the (delightfully named) Times Machine images. The archive stops in the 20s because, no shit, though the Times owns the copyright on its stories, it doesn’t own the copyright on the advertisements contained in the pages and thus can’t reproduce them.

  • Negotiating these permissions can be so frustrating. I recommend Nolo Press’s excellent book on the public domain. It’s clear and easy to use.

  • “Rent-seeking” is right; that seems to be exactly what copyright has turned into.

    It’s interesting to see how something originally designed to make more material available to the public (via rewarding creators with artificial monopolies where there would otherwise be none) has mutated in the public perception to be all about the “rights” of the creators, as opposed to the good of society.

    The extension of copyrights has turned the whole thing around; we’re now actually losing material because copies of it vanish before the copyright expires.

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