Over my winter break I’m attempting to really really finalize the images for my upcoming book, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon. I’m also making final tweaks to my students’ inaugural websites, including the already launched Quad Project: A Students’ History of West Chester University drawing on images from West Chester University Library’s Special Collections. So when my art librarian husband forwarded me e-Literate‘s post on museum and library image use policies, it felt like many of the issues I’ve recently been wrestling with–digital history, copyright, fair use, teaching with images, expensive licensing fees–were tied neatly together. The astute folks at e-Literate call on museums and libraries to make images of the objects in their collections more readily available.
As I’ve sought permission to publish each of the 100 or so images I plan to use in my book, I’ve become hyper-aware of who claims ownership of what, and have coughed up money to both the copyright owners–Mark Rothko’s children and Barnett Newman’s estate, who clearly own copyright to the works of these 20th-century artists, to the repositories who own the works themselves, and to organizations like ArtRes who own images of paintings. It’s particularly complicated for objects such as the many Amish made quilts executed in tradition patterns. The museums don’t necessarily claim the copyright to the quilts made by unknown makers, but they do claim the ability to license the beautiful images of these quilts.
In my students’ closing comments to my first effort at teaching Digital History, many of them stated that one of them most important skills they learned was the ability to find copyright free images through Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, and other resources that allow users to search for Creative Commons licensed and public domain images. I learned a lot about this too. And now that I’m so sensitive to copyright claims, I’m wondering whether I need to contact the pattern publisher of a quilt owned by a museum who has given me permission to publish. Does the pattern maker own the copyright of the quilt itself? Or the maker? Or the museum? And who owns the copyright to the image I took of the packaging materials for a factory-made quilt produced by a now defunct company? Finally, why won’t the United States Postal Service respond to my request to reproduce images of its Amish quilt stamps (I’d love to insert an image here, but I fear their wrath)?