Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Copyright Dilemma

A stray Google search brought me to Cartoon Stock, a stock art service. I admit I'm not fan of stock art agencies, but I was puzzled by this "vintage" cartoon, for which Cartoon Stock claims to own the reproduction rights. Below the cartoon is the statement, "Copyright in this image is owned by the original artist." The cartoonist is John Leech, and he died in 1864. This can't possibly be correct, as any copyright would have run out.

What reproduction rights does Cartoon Stock actually own? This cartoon should be in the public domain. Or do they have the rights to their scan of the cartoon? Many museums that forbid photography do something similar. While they can't copyright the works of art, they can copyright the photographs. This allows museum control of the image reproduction of otherwise public works of art.

I find it disheartening that whatever I draw, write or paint today could be sold for a couple of bucks to anybody and his dog tomorrow. How well are ever-changing Copyright laws protecting the interests of creators?

While many countries still permit Work for Hire, which removes a writer or artist's authorship, other countries enforce what they call Moral Rights. Moral rights protect the creator's right of attribution to and integrity of her work. Some go further; France reverts all rights and ownership of a work to the creator after a certain period of time. Is the US taking a step backward by introducing legislation that, rather than automatically protecting a copyright holder, will put the onus on the artist rather than the unauthorized user?

Things have improved since Charles Dickens toured the US, speaking out about the importance of international copyright recognition. Said Dickens in a letter to a friend,

I spoke, as you know, of international copyright, at Boston; and I spoke of it again at Hartford. My friends were paralysed with wonder at such audacious daring. The notion that I, a man alone by himself, in America, should venture to suggest to the Americans that there was one point on which they were neither just to their own countrymen nor to us, actually struck the boldest dumb! Washington Irving, Prescott, Hoffman, Bryant, Halleck, Dana, Washington Allston -- every man who writes in this country is devoted to the question, and not one of them dares to raise his voice and complain of the atrocious state of the law. It is nothing that of all men living I am the greatest loser by it. It is nothing that I have a claim to speak and be heard. The wonder is that a breathing man can be found with temerity enough to suggest to the Americans the possibility of their having done wrong. I wish you could have seen the faces that I saw, down both sides of the table at Hartford, when I began to talk about Scott...

I had no sooner made that second speech than such an outcry began (for the purpose of deterring me from doing the like in this city) as an Englishman can form no notion of. Anonymous letters; verbal dissuasions; newspaper attacks making Colt (a murderer who is attracting great attention here) an angel by comparison with me; assertions that I was no gentleman, but a mere mercenary scoundrel....

Are we back to square one, with publishers not having to pay Dickens a dime?

Should we protect the rights of those who came before us? I have to wonder if that has an effect on how we choose to protect the work of living creators. If so, how do we define the limits of protection, respect, and moral responsibility?

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    This has been a controversial theme and will continue to be.
    I'd like to believe that people would be able to reach an agreement through good sense, but it seems that money and ignorance together can have a negative influence.