Friday, December 18, 2009

New Topographics smacked down

On Dec 16, 2009, at 6:32 AM, J- wrote:

Dear Mr. Andrews,

I just saw your blog post about New Topographics and had a great laugh over the Smackdown T-Shirt. We love it and all want one! Excellent work.

However, I also see that you reproduced the New Topographics catalogue in your post. Unfortunately I am going to have to ask you to take the catalogue down. Reproducing it without permission is a copyright violation and in order to obtain proper permissions you would need to contact me (GEH) and all the artists featured. If you were to contact me about it I would say yes, but only if you clear the rights of each individual artist and Bill Jenkins. You are free to leave up the cover if you like.

Now, do you mind if I blog about your T-shirt?


Department of Photographs
George Eastman House

On Dec 16, 2009, at 12:28 PM, Blake Andrews wrote:

Hi J-,

I appreciate the kindly worded request and I have removed the images.

I suspected this might come up. In fact part of the reason I went forward with the post was to test the waters a little and see what would happen. I've long been frustrated by the lack of easy access to older photographic material. These books are held like state secrets but with no FOIA capability. The New Topographics is merely the tip of the iceberg, but it was the test case I selected because

1) It is long out of print and hard to find,
2) It shows just a few images by each photographer and thus was less likely to piss anyone off in particular, and
3) Most of those images are already available on the web in various commercial and noncommercial contexts (just do a Google image search for "New Topographics" to find thousands) and so to some extent I was repeating what had been done.

That does not excuse my action. Clearly it was a violation of copyright. But there are thousands of similar violations out there and surely you can't police all of them. And this is a problem that will only grow larger, that is in fact about to explode all over various publishers.

In my opinion the best way for Eastman House or others to nip this in the bud is to take the lead. Presumably you have licensing rights to the material. If you made it viewable online somewhere it could be a wonderful resource. You could charge some nominal fee for access or make it available for free. For anyone looking for New Topographics photos, you would become the central source of material, putting a serious crimp in the various unlicensed images out there. And all of us lowly bloggers could devote our energy to other things besides scraping together old images to share. Instead of spending hours scanning old catalogs, I could spend a second hyperlinking to you.

I have gotten a lot of comments on the T-shirt. It exists only on the web at this point but I can guarantee that if Eastman House produced something similar (using legally licensed images of course) or with a similar tone of irreverence, and sold them through museum stores during the show, they would sell like gangbusters. You are welcome to blog about it.

Thanks again for the notice, and sorry for the copyright violation.



J. Karanka said...

Photography is quite a bizarre case for these things. The New Topographics is by now, a 70% academic title. It is something you have to go through to write another text, or see at some point. However, the fact that it is also a collectors item pushes it from as widely available as possible towards available to the very few. If the same happened with scientific articles universities would be struggling to find those 1920s Nature and Science articles that you have to every now and then find in the remote galleries of the library.

Nick Turpin said...

I wonder if 'J' at George Eastman House realises how poorly his request reflects on his organisation. Their own mission statement says that Eastman House

'is an educational institution that tells the story of photography'

...and that they...

'Build information resources to provide the means for both scholarly research and recreational inquiry'

So where are they 'J'?

If you don't get on board with the new agenda Eastman House is going to become as relevant as Kodak is now. Having a web site with a Directors Welcome and a downloadable annual report doesn't really cut it.

To control the non profit online quoting of a long out of print publication is unnecessary and small minded.

Jessica said...

Part of the mission of George Eastman House is to tell the story of photography and film and to celebrate the life of George Eastman. When trying to carry out this mission we have to strike a balance between disseminating knowledge and objects and protecting artistic legacies.

In other words, we would love to publish everything, but in order to respect copyrights that are still active, we can’t.

When I asked Mr. Andrews to take down the New Topographics catalogue that he published, in its entirety, I was doing so to protect the copyright of the artists. I agree that the catalogue should be available for study and if we are able to get permission from everyone involved, we will put it online. In the meantime, the entire catalogue is reproduced in the upcoming Steidl publication.

Eastman House is making strides towards developing online resources, but like many cultural heritage institutions, money and staff time are not in abundance. Despite these obstacles we have managed to produce some valuable online resources in the last year and we are working towards more online access points in the future.

Flickr Commons:
Image Magazine Online:

Finally, I know it is not practical for everyone to visit our physical museum in Rochester, NY, but we have a very open research policy and try and accommodate any and all requests.

Jessica Johnston
Assistant Curator of Photographs
George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film

Blake Andrews said...

I think Eastman should be commended for including the original catalog in the upcoming book. Looking forward to that.

Karanka's point raises an interesting question. Should all copyrighted material be treated uniformly or does some material like New Topographics have such historical significance that the public deserves access? Right now the law treats everything the same.

For example I could take a recently published photo book by a young photographer, scan the images, put them on the web, and save folks the hassle of buying the book. The web images would compete directly with the book in the marketplace. I would be appropriating images without permission and redistributing them in a punitive way. I think everyone agrees this is a horrible act and laws should restrict this, to allow photographers to earn some living from their work.

But the case of New Topographics (and many similar works) may be different. In this case there is no marketplace for the work. It's inaccessible. If I put it on the web it doesn't compete against anything and it doesn't take any potential profits from any photographer. Instead it fills a void. Furthermore, as Karanka points out, no complete understanding of photography is possible without some access to New Topographics. I'm sure the book is xeroxed and/or cross-referenced in every MFA program under Fair Use law, and justifiably so. It should be a public resource.

Current copyright law treats the two cases above equally. I don't think they are equal. I'm not sure exactly how the law should be reformulated, and I think any tinkering with the law would piss off big boys like Disney, Warner Bros., etc. Until the legal issues catch up to reality we'll continue to see replications on the web on B, AmericanSuburbX, PhotoEphemera, and other sources.

Nick Turpin said...

My apologies to Jessica for assuming she was a 'he'!

And I sympathise with the limited resources that may be available for making this document available online.

I am not convinced that it is your job to police the copyright of the artists involved in the New Topographics, as long as their ownership of the image is made clear in the publication any republication online is up to the individual artists to track down and control if they are concerned by it.
You can ask Blake to remove the document because your own copyright for the manuscript is beached but I don't accept that you have a responsibility to the photographers included beyond crediting them correctly in the original printed publication.

I imagine Steidl negotiated permission to reproduce with the individual artists not all from Eastman House for the same reason. Eastman House can't protect copyrights that it doesn't hold.

Perhaps the real reason is that Eastman House will gain financially from the new Steidl publication and that is what 'J' is really protecting here.