Information Age Denials
Intellectual property has become one of the most salient aspects of the modern Information Age. In an era when great promises have been for enhanced access to information, contentious battles over who gets to use certain information or how much they have to pay for the information threatens to erode these promises. Susan M. Bielstein, an executive editor at the University of Chicago Press, provides a glimpse into the realities of intellectual property in her Permissions, A Survival Guide: Blunt Talk About Art as Intellectual Property (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), ISBN 0-226-04637-0, where she considers the shifting social, cultural, economic, and other factors affecting intellectual property and provides some level-headed guidance to authors and others who might have need to seek permission to use an image.
Permissions is a edgy book, at times funny and at others frustrating with its strange case studies. Bielstein is often appropriately sarcastic, especially in the captions to her own illustrations, using them to reveal the generally absurd state of intellectual property law and custom today. You get a sense of her viewpoint with this: “It’s a world of perceived sides: yours versus theirs, a universe of fine lines and split hairs. It is a world that seems equitably divided between victims and bullies. One party’s gain means another one’s loss. In this world, you survive by wit and patience” (p. 1). Bielstein reviews the nature and history of copyright, the concept of public domain, the role of cultural institutions (ironically, they are often very difficult to work with), and the notion of fair use.
The author provides a lot of practical advice and recommendations for transforming this part of the world of intellectual property. It is the book’s practical slant that most readers will find useful and funny as well, such as this passage: “First things first. If you don’t need illustrations to make a point, don’t use them. Concentrate on the writing. Make it every bit as lovely as you can. Every text deserves the chance to be a masterpiece. Chasing images is time-consuming and expensive. So if you can live without images, do it. Put that money toward orthodontia or a down payment on a house” (p. 101). And Bielstein drives home this point by providing plenty of detail about the effort, costs, and troubles in securing permission to use illustrations for this book. If you do nothing else, flip through the book and read the captions. You might vomit up your latté at the local bookshop, but it will be a useful purging.
Given the potential of the World Wide Web to open up the use of images, reading Bielstein’s volume is a sober experience. We live in a time of ownership concerns above all else, even when we understand that the use of documents such as photographs and reproductions of paintings and other art will expand our sensibilities and knowledge, enhance our texts, and enliven our discourse. As this editor sadly laments, we are given to the trends in resisting such a basic truth as this: “Reproductions make art worth more, not less” (p. 154). Yet, a lot of energy goes into fighting this. Archivists, librarians, and museum curators need to join into the battle (and some have), and they need to be on the side of open access and use.