Sunday 1 November 2015

On the Proper Method of Pruning a Rose (or, My Adventures in Copyrightland)

I recently received a pleasant surprise, a message in my newfangled electronic-mail inbox.  "Dear Mr. Carey," it began, "Here's a kind of request you may not have encountered before."  Indeed, I had not.  The message was from Barbara Newman, a professor of English, Religious Studies and Classics at Northwestern University.  It was a request to use an image of a lute rose that I had carved, photographed and posted on my blog a couple of years back, for the cover of her forthcoming book, an edition of a set of 12th century Latin love letters, possibly written by Heloise and Abelard.  The book is scheduled for publication by Penn (the University of Pennsylvania Press) in the spring of 2016. 

As Professor Newman explained, "Finding good cover art was a challenge; all the great medieval paintings of lovers are later than my letters, and I wanted to avoid anachronism.  But then I stumbled on your blog, with the photo of your lute rose adapted from a 1592 Venere instrument.  I sent it to my editor, who had already rejected several of my suggestions, and he liked it a lot.  Below you'll see what the designer did with it, turning the rose into a window through which we glimpse a distant landscape."

Of course, I immediately gave permission to use my photo of my rose carving.  The project seemed so worthy, the jacket design so tasteful, and the request so gracious--how could I possibly refuse?  Additional incentives were that I would be given a credit line (to be written by me), and that I would receive a free copy of the book.  Pushing my luck, I asked for two copies--one for me, which I will treasure, and one for the client for whose lute I carved this rose.  I'm sure he'll be thrilled to receive it.  I remember him telling me when he requested this design, out of all the possible historical examples I had shown him, that he had just fallen in love with the pattern.  I know the feeling, and I'm sure many of you do as well.

Here's the photo of the original rose I carved in 2014, which was used for the jacket design.

Most of you will know that I love to carve lute roses, love to photograph the carvings, and love to post those photos on this blog.  It's a bit of advertising, sure, but it's really mostly just a way for me to celebrate and share the work I do and the beauty I live for.  It makes me happy when I learn that other people take pleasure in my words and images, and to receive a request like Professor Newman's is gratifying and very flattering indeed.

Sometimes, though, I'm a bit more... ambivalent about such attention.

Take, for instance, that morning in the spring of 2014 when, over my bowl of porridge, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and this popped up:

Neat poster, I thought, cool program, great line-up of players, but that rose photo looks pretty familiar... now where have I seen that before?  Oh yeah--on my blog!  I carved it, I photo'd it, I posted it, and there it was, looking right back at me, a friend and a stranger at the same time.  Odd feeling.  A bit, I suppose, like watching somebody drive by in your stolen car, or walk your stolen dog down the sidewalk in front of your house, or play your stolen guitar from the stage.  Alienating.

The original photo:

I can see why the music school would want to use this for their poster--it's one of the best carvings of this pattern (from the Warwick Frei) that I've done, and it's certainly the best rose photo that I've ever taken.  I remember the morning I took it: I'd finished the carving and set it in the window, and the light was beautiful, the air so soft, a mist coming up from the river, the sun breaking through the clouds of late-winter rain... the carving glowed, lit up from the inside.  It was kind of a miraculous moment.

Obviously, somebody else felt the same way.

Mightily annoyed, I climbed up on my very highest horse and fired off a tersely worded email to the offending institution, requesting, nay demanding, that the poster be taken down, expunged from the internet, cast into the depths, etc., etc.  Further, I shamed them, shamed them with my wagging, nagging finger that as an educational institution they should know better than to thieve so blatantly.  Then I hit send, sat back, and waited for my satisfaction to come rolling back to me through the transatlantic wires.

And even before it did--long before it did, actually, before I received their complete and abject apology for having used my precious photo without asking--I felt like a total jerk.  Who on earth did I think I was?  What possible difference did it make that they'd used my photo?  The concert was free--I'm sure nobody was paid anything for participating--and the only reason the school and the players put on the show was to share some beautiful music, and spread the good word about the lute, the instrument I most love and that I've devoted my working life to.  Why wouldn't I support that?

Confused and a bit guilt-ridden, I went to Facebook, told my friends and acquaintances about the situation, and asked the collected wisdom to speak its mind.  I got a lot of responses, some of them helpful, some not.  Don't worry about it, some said, it's just a little free show.  You should be happy your work got shown around--it's exposure!  (No matter that my name and the source of the photo were nowhere attached to the poster.)  Others said, hey, it's a real problem, but there's not much to be done, unless you want to start watermarking your photos.  It's the internet!  Stuff gets used everywhere, all the time, everything's up for grabs.  It's the future, and you might as well learn to live with it, old man.

Time passed.  I felt less bad for giving the music school such pure, unadulterated heck for their misdemeanor.  They even sent me a DVD of their 2009 production of Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea." It was nice of them--they didn't have to do that.  Bad feelings went away, and were replaced with a kind of rueful forgiveness.  I hoped that we'd both learned a valuable lesson.

But I have to say that for me, things still felt a little unresolved--until, that is, I got that email request from Professor Newman.  There's one sentence in it that really made my heart sing: "Since the photo is under copyright," she wrote, "I'm writing now to ask if we might have your permission to adapt it."

For me, that's the whole issue in a nutshell.  As I understand it, the copyright of all the words and pics I post on this blog belongs to me, without my having to do anything else to assert it.  The phrase that appears at the end of this post, down at the bottom of the page, "Copyright 2011-2015 by Travis Carey," is a courtesy, a reminder to anyone reading the blog that to borrow, adapt, or otherwise re-use anything on it should be done only after asking my permission.  For Professor Newman, coming from an academic background, asking permission and giving credit where it's due is a professional imperative; but to me, it's also, generally, just good manners.

But I hear the objection: what about re-posting?  What about social media?  What about sharing?  All of those are fine, and I welcome them, but I must insist that my name travel along with any of the images or words that get passed along.  I don't like the idea of having to electronically watermark my photos, because in a way that just assumes the worst in people, which I prefer not to do (if I were a professional photographer and made my living from my images, I might feel otherwise).  At the same time, I realize that mistakes are easily made, and I am willing to forgive an error, or ask that an oversight be corrected.  And I ask that the same courtesy be extended to me: I occasionally use images from other sources on this blog, and I try my best to track down their owners and ask permission to use them, but sometimes it's just not possible.  If I've committed an error, or made an oversight, please let me know, and I will correct it. 

If anyone is ever in doubt about whether she or he should ask permission to use my words or photos in another context, I would say that you should let that doubt be your guide, and ask permission.  Leave a message for me on the blog; message me on Facebook; send me an email.  Chances are that unless you are planning to do something morally or politically objectionable with my words or images, I will say yes to your request.

All you have to do is ask.