Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fair Use

I just received a digital image from the Boston Athenaeum for use on the 13th Mass web site. I had to pay a digitizing fee and a one time only ‘use fee’ but it was reasonable and worth it to me. It will be the most costly item on my web site. It’s a lithograph by artist Henry Bacon, [Co. D, 13th Mass.], depicting two important events in the annals of the regiment; 4th of July, 1861 & 4th of July, 1862. It’s titled “Ye Two Galorious Fourths.” My philosophy for the website is to let the soldiers in the regiment tell its history as much as possible. Bacon’s semi-comic visual remembrance contains personal details that another artist might miss. I’ve been pretty fortunate in finding materials for the website, but there have been a few times when I’ve run into obstacles, and I think this is a topic that’s worth a little discussion.

A library recently denied permission to post some letter transcriptions from their collection on my site. Some of this soldier’s letters have been floating around at auction houses, and I own one of the originals. The soldier was killed at Gettysburg, so in a way, I’m exploiting his death for poignancy sake. But the real reason I wanted to post selective transcriptions, is because the soldiers’ voice is one more piece of the huge tapestry that tells the story of the 13th Mass. This brings up a question of ownership & ‘free use.’

I can understand the library’s position; they don’t want the letter transcriptions plastered across the internet. My position is that the context of the letters would be more easily understood if they appeared on a webpage featuring contemporary letters of his comrades. Plus the letters were written almost 150 years ago…but the library owns the letters, and they get some small revenues selling transcriptions and attracting visitors to their collection.

Many descendants of 13th Mass men have shared soldier’s letters or images with me, and I always ask if it is alright to post them on the website. These add to the voices of the regiment. Many descendants are pleased to do so, some are indifferent, and a few are reluctant for family considerations or for publishing considerations. Most are very generous. But it is still their decision to make, which I respect. I get materials from other places – books, and from private collectors. I used to think it was better for artifacts to reside in museums or libraries rather than with private collectors, because access would be easier but I have changed my mind on this point.

All the private collectors I have contacted and met, have been extremely generous, beyond belief, in sharing their collections with me. They are enthusiastic about their collections, and they take great pains to care for them and share them. Plus they have the means to keep up their collections. One gentleman let me hold the sword of Col. Corcoran, 69th NY Vols. I went to see the uniform of a 13th Mass officer that he keeps carefully preserved in his home. His wife has become an expert seamstress in mending collectible garments that have deteriorated. The collector assured me that I could get a photograph of the item should I ever want it. Another private collector shared with me about 100 digital images of 13th Mass soldiers from his own collection. There have been a lot more. In contrast, many valuable artifacts that belong to libraries or private institutions are never seen. Limited funds and prohibitive costs keep artifacts locked away in basements. I’ve been told that General Rosecran’s personal memorabilia is locked away in storage at UCLA because no one has the time or money to properly care for them.

I’ve had positive experiences with almost all the libraries and institutions I’ve contacted for permission to use materials on my website. Usually transcriptions can be used for free, provided credit is given the organization as holder of the document. Digital images, like scans of letters or pictures, are more likely to have nominal fees attached to their use. But a couple of prominent institutions have un-reasonable fees. Twice I’ve been prevented from using materials due to excessive fees. In addition, distracting watermarks were required by one institution in order to display an image. I wanted to use several drawings of a war correspondent, who sketched several locations and buildings where the 13th Mass traveled and bivouacked. The institution wanted all the images to have watermarks, and charged an annual use fee of $50 per image. I really don’t think they wanted to grant permission at all, so they put the high fees in place. I have limited funds to devote to this hobby, so I found substitutes to use in place of those images, but a few of the sketches were one of a kind - and I couldn’t find replacements. I admit, I prefer to use good quality images on my site; and perhaps they are sometimes too large, but I’m trying to recreate what the soldiers experienced as much as possible. Contemporary images provide that to visitors.

Like-wise, another large prestigious institution has Cdv’s of many 13th Mass men in their collection; and I can order digital copies of them, - at $50 ea. I settled for photocopies.

Believe it or not, I am selective about what I choose to post. If I were not the pages would be even loooooooooonger. I can’t use everything I find (or have) on my website. I have some lengthy web pages but that is because I like to have as broad a selection of materials as possible that depict life in the 13th Mass.

All this brings up the question or debate of what constitutes ‘ownership’ & ‘fair use.’ Personally, I think document transcriptions should be free to use. I don’t mind paying nominal fees for that privilege. For images, I don’t mind small un-obtrusive watermarks, but I’d prefer not to have any. I think scanning fees should be cheaper than $50 an image and use fees nominal (definitely not $50 dollars a year). I don’t mind paying a small amount if I have to, but fees give pause to using documents. I can sympathize with private institutions that need to pay staff and meet overhead costs to maintain collections. I just wish that some of these lesser known materials were available for use. These are my thoughts anyway. If any of you have more insight on the subject I’d like to hear your comments.

To those collector friends and families that have shared information with me, MANY THANKS! I think you’ve helped make unique.

1 comment:

  1. Brad - What an excellent post. I have run into many of the same blessings (re: the generosity of private collectors) and challenges (re: high user fees) in my own research and writing.

    I do not begrudge any institution reasonable copying and shipping fees for archival material and that has never been a problem. Even image reproduction fees have generally been reasonable ($15-20 for digital images or prints) and are generally for one-of-a-kind items. Nor do I begrudge them making me sign "permission to publish" forms.

    Like you, my biggest complaint has been for "user fees" for reproduction in my books, articles, etc. Fortunately the better magazines generally take care of this and only ask that you give them suggested illustrations and they will usually take care of the licensing issues. By the way, I do not count North & South among the better magazines in this regard as I know they have used copyrighted images without permission.

    However, for books, some institutions ask for more in licensing fees for one photograph than I could **ever** hope to recoup in small royalties. On the other hand, other archives have given me a break knowing that my books are with independent publishers with lower print runs.

    So much of the best unit history writing is being done by folks like yourself. I think you are to be commended for keeping to copyright requirements. Not all bloggers, writers, etc., have the same scruples.

    I wonder if those policies as to exorbitant user fees will ever change in the future.