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.
- 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.” ↩