Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Permissions: A Survival Guide: Blunt Talk about Art as Intellectual Property

53. Permissions: A Survival Guide: Blunt Talk about Art as Intellectual Property, by Susan M. Bielstein

Susan Bielstein is the executive editor for art, architecture, classical studies, and film at the University of Chicago Press. In that capacity, she has dealt with the vexed and complex question of how intellectual property law applies to the visual arts, in the context of the use of images to illustrate academic texts.

Now, it would not be unreasonable for you to think that this is a subject that only lawyers could love, but you would be wrong. In Bielstein's capable hands, it is a fascinating and, at times, even humorous subject. The distinctions between copyright permission and use permission, the way practicalities (the need for a reproducible image, the desire to avoid offending an institution with which one may have to deal in the future) affect whether and how one requests permission, the intricacies of determining what is in copyright, these are the stuff from which she has created a volume that is of great practical use to the author, editor and publisher.

But the non-professional will also find it of interest. How does the ease with which technology allows reproduction of images affect these issues? What is the interplay between property rights and personalty rights and privacy? What effect does the institutional claim of copyright over images that are likely public domain have on future use? These are questions the answers to which concern us all, because they will have an impact on the availability of information. An example from my own recent reading comes to mind. I had read a non-fiction book about a Caravaggio painting, and commented negatively on the absence of images. How, I wondered, was it possible to write a book about a piece of art without showing us that art? I think now that it is quite likely that permission to use images of the work was denied. If that is the case, then I can say without hesitation that the book was much the poorer for it. Why an institution would deny such permission (or make the cost prohibitive) is, frankly, beyond me.

To make her points, Bielstein has included with every image information regarding not merely the copyright, but whether and how much of a fee was requested, how the image was obtained (JPEG, transparency, etc.), and sometimes lengthy explications of the image's status.

As she says, "Welcome to the Fun House."


  1. Ha! Very appropos, in view of certain Chit Chat threads!

  2. Yes, and didn't that thread deteriorate in a hurry!