Thursday, November 29, 2012

Medieval Manuscript Images and Copyright

by J J Cohen

By now you've heard the news that British Library manuscript images are open access. (And just after I paid them for use of an image for my next book. Can I get my £80 for worldwide rights back?). This announcement is tremendously cheering to those of us who have had to deal with the sometimes unhelpful BL permissions management staff -- and who have wondered why it should cost so much to share an image that really ought to be out in the world as much as possible.

The British Library is playing catch up with more visionary institutions, such as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore under curator William Noel. Let's hope other institutions quickly follow. For now, though, check out this great interview with Noel at the TED Blog, where he makes an eloquent plea for Creative Commons licensing of all medieval manuscript digital images. My favorite portion of the interview:
"Libraries containing special collections of medieval materials are normally very careful to write restrictive copyright on their materials. Part of this is historical; that is to say, when images of these manuscripts were published in books, it didn’t have to behave like digital data, and it didn’t have to be free for people to use in all sorts of ways and in different contexts. The images were just reproduced in other books. But those days are fast running out, and digital images need to be free, so that people can do what they need to do with them and what they want to do with them. That’s the great thing about digital data!

So part of that is historical: You used to restrict the use of your books to try and make money off reproductions in other books. It was expensive, but it wasn’t crippling. Today these copyright restrictions are now crippling scholarship and access by the general public. The other thing is that a lot of these collections are in national institutions, university libraries, and they are the prized cultural heritage of these institutions. The policymakers in those institutions don’t like the idea that reproductions of these images can be available for free. It feels to them like you are denigrating your greatest asset. That’s a state of mind that belongs to my grandfather — for whom I have great affection, but to whom I don’t listen much anymore."
Read the whole thing.

6 comments:

Andrew Klein said...

This is so exciting! And somehow I missed the news... Thanks! Such a long-awaited forward-looking move by the BL, absolutely fantastic.

Mackenzie said...

How can they be under copyright at all? They're hundreds of years old!

When a photo is taken of a Renaissance-era painting, that photo has zero copyright attached, because its contents (the painting) are in the public domain. Shouldn't the same rule apply to a scan of an out-of-copyright manuscript?

Ben said...

Thanks for posting this. Will and the Walters are dear to my heart, but this is a bigger issue, and the institutions and individuals who support expanded access should be celebrated and supported.

Mackenzie - The claim is made that although the original works themselves are in PD, the photographs of them are under copyright. This claim has not stood up in court: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridgeman_Art_Library_v._Corel_Corp. It's worth noting, though, that the ruling applies just to reproductive photos of 2-D works; 3-D works present problems, since there is significant element of interpretation on the part of the photographer.

Em said...

Thanks for sharing the news! Does the same go for early printed materials?

Eileen Joy said...

Very exciting news for punctum books as well, as we can make use of images from both the Walters and the BL to make even more beautiful books.

M.K. Foys said...

Being in the audience at the Digipal Symposium when BL reps dropped the bombshell about open access was probably the most exciting single moment of academic spectatorship I've experienced.

The BL's announcement is exciting. It is also important to note that the remediation of older logics of capital in the face of new forms of media is also in full swing, with some frightening new re-definitions of ownership in light of transactional media. You can see me bang on more specifically about such things in Jen Boyle's and my (freely available - go postmedieval!) introduction to the Becoming Media volume of postmedieval.

The BL's decision is an optimistic herald how how things should be changing. But it is also important to reamin aware and agitant of how old data are also being transformed digitally solely for the purposes of not freeing it, but charging anew for it.