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Intellectual Property
July 8, 2009 - 1:40am


I have no budget for photos or illustrations for this nonfiction project I’m working on, and I don’t qualify for subventions—departmental, college, or campus subsidies—since it’s for a general readership and isn’t a peer-reviewed work of scholarship. I’m trying to work smart, but sometimes it means making hard choices over things I’d really like to include.

Most of all it’s been surprising how widely rates and policies vary, at different institutions, for the use of archival images. I’ve been to archives at the town library, the county historical association, the Lincoln Presidential Library, the Chicago History Museum, Southern Illinois University, the Illinois State Geological Survey, and the Southern Illinoisan newspaper (who are excellent and handsome people). I’ve accessed several collections online, such as the ones at the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And I’ve queried a number of private collectors, photographers, and newspapers with closed archives, such as the Chicago Tribune.

What it’s taught me is that intellectual property rights are an utter mess—a sort of land-grab—as if recent worries over course packets and Michael Jackson’s will didn’t make that clear already.

Some places allow me to bring in a scanner and make my own digital files; others make their own files or prints. Some places charge a flat fee for researching and reproduction together; some charge nothing and have my eternal thanks. Others charge a stiff research fee—in some cases for literally just walking back to get a folder—as well as graduated licensing fees based on print runs, interior versus cover use, the kind of media, etc. When I add up costs, I sometimes find that using a desired image is prohibitive, even though there are no licensing fees for its use.

Library of Congress images can be like that. When LoC made its first attempt at digitizing, the government contractor didn’t always scan the photos at what we would now consider high resolution. Of course subsequent re-digitization of those files (to prevent degradation) could never get any better. If I want a pic at a resolution acceptable for printing in a book, I have to request that someone go into a hanger at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, where the original negatives for these call numbers are now stored, retrieve it, make a print, and ship it to me.

Just to be clear, what I’m asking to look at and possibly use is, with a few exceptions, old enough to be copyright-free; even when it's not, the photographer is long-dead and often unknown, the companies involved long-defunct, the subjects and their descendants gone. Often there are multiple copies of an image in several archives. I’m okay with paying a small tax, in effect, for using one collection’s version of an image, if it helps them keep an archivist employed and the image well- preserved. The Chicago History Museum, which recently aided the production team of the movie Public Enemies, is reasonable about their fees. But I do the slow burn of the helpless when some big-city paper wants to charge $300 for the use of a small image, plus a $100 research fee, plus an overpriced rate for a quick scan, plus shipping, for something that ran decades ago with an article that no one will ever see again in any other form. Knowing that the big-city paper’s corporate parent filed for bankruptcy protection recently and is in need of a little cash doesn’t help either.

I was thinking of the recent unpleasantness over intellectual rights to James Joyce’s work, and that made me think back to when I was at University of Miami, a good Joyce school if ever 'twere one, when I think they felt the pinch of trying to quote him in their scholarship. I suppose if you were Joyce’s grandson—named Stephen, of all things—you might feel cheated if you got locked out completely, though I hate the idea of family members trying to use their inheritance to control how their writer-relatives are perceived. But did you know the President and Fellows of Harvard College own heirless Emily Dickinson, who died 123 years ago? They do: I paid them to use one of her poems in my novel. (They own her to the extent that they published the definitive volume of her work, free of meddlesome edits and omissions by well-meaning family, recently enough that copyright is still in effect.)

And I don’t know what the hell this is having to do with one of my heroes, but it appears not to be a joke. Look at their client list and you may find other heroes of your own represented.

Crazy Larry, who went with me to serve as Scanner Monkey on a two-day run recently, says most collectors don’t even know what they have yet, what’s it worth, or whether it’s actually worthless. I’m not taking any chances. I’m copyrighting all the images of my children. If they want to see them in the future, they’ll have to go through my archive editor and pay pay pay….

Photo: Mark Twain, from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


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