Have you ever had the experience of walking across a cow-field in the dark, never quite sure of where you are about to put your foot? Copyright is a bit like that, especially the copyright that may or may not exist on old images. My thoughts turned to this messy subject after reading a report about someone in Florida who decided to scan some old family photographs of long departed relatives in the local Wal-Mart store. Even though the photographs were over 80 years old and the subjects were all long-dead, the Wal-Mart employee refused to allow the scanning because it would be an infringement of copyright.
Copyright law is a bit like a box of matches : the matches can be quite legitimately used to light a fire to keep you warm, or light a fine Havana cigar to keep you sane; but they can also be used to burn down an art gallery. Copyright law can provide protection for those who have created something of value, but it can also be used as a nonsensical cash-cow. All we need to remember is that every time we sing "Happy Birthday To You" we are supposed to pay some corporation somewhere because the tune is still under copyright.
This week on Sepia Saturday I have used a photograph of the kitchens at Windsor Castle which was taken in 1878. Whilst in the process of cutting and pasting the image I was a little surprised to discover that my old friend, HM the Queen, is claiming copyright on the image. Recent reports suggest that the dear lady has a personal fortune of some $500 million which makes her claim of copyright on the kitchen photograph a little over the top.
I have chosen to illustrate this little moan with a picture of Regent Street in 1923. It is a scan of a photograph in an old book I bought in a junk shop several years ago. The book itself was over 70 years old and the photograph must be nearly 80 years old. The question is, of course, can I reproduce the image here? Some would say that when I scanned the image I created a new work which I now have copyright on. This puts me in the remarkable position of owning the copyright on Regents Street, a street which, I understand, HM travels down frequently in her coach and horses on the way to some state occasion or other. So I will finish with a personal offer to my monarch : if you let me use your kitchen, I will let you trot down Regents Street. You can't say fairer than that.