Copyright Headaches Of An Academic

A while ago, one of my esteemed colleagues inveigled me into editing a collection of essays, for which we agreed that I would publish the essay about Magritte and Krazy Kat that I started working on several years ago. I’ll need to go over the article a few times to comb out the tangles from having been presented in a couple of live settings, and to orient it toward the trajectory of the whole collection, but those will be minor commitments; the article is mostly where I want it to be.
As you might expect, though, that argument invokes several illustrations by René Magritte and George Herriman, and one of the reasons I had let the argument lie in abeyance was that I anticipated vexation in obtaining the rights to reproduce those images. I’ve been exchanging emails with the folks at Fantagraphics, who have published Herriman’s full-page Sunday versions of Krazy Kat comics, and they’ve been a dream come true to work with. To be fair, all the images I want to work with come from comics in the public domain; but Fantagraphics has what one might call the canonical digital representations of the images, and there’s no need for them to be as accommodating as they have been. Hey, go buy something from them — they’re champs! Go, Fantagraphics!
Less helpful — though absolutely within their legal prerogatives — have been the guardians of the rights to Magritte’s work. Now, surely they have been ill-used by college dorm-room poster printers, and certainly Magritte’s brilliance warrants his heirs eliciting their full due from others who want to use his work for profit. In my case, I’m hoping to use several of the individual frames from his essay ‘Les mots et les images’, published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1929 (had to be 1929, not 1926!). If Magritte had written the entire essay in words, I could have quoted freely from it, without impediment, as a normal matter of academic business. But because he illustrated the essay with sketches — and because the sketches constitute the heart of the argument — the agents for Magritte’s rights have a number of stipulations and, of course, expected payments (probably not unreasonable rates, but daunting to an impecunious academic). Moreover — because I seek permission to reprint two or three (two, at this rate) of the individual frames rather than the entire illustrated essay at one go, they require approval of the presentation, and a separate fee for each image.
It’s occurred to me to obtain permission to print the whole tableau, and just refer to particular frames as they come into the argument — I haven’t ruled that out — but the alternative underscores how peculiar the situation is. If I squeeze the whole tableau into my page layout, I only pay one fee, readers will see the whole thing, and the representation will be more crowded andf less legible, serving both my argument and Magritte’s reputation less well. If reprint only three of the frames, I have to pay three times as much, readers will see less of the tableau (and would be motivated to seek out the whole image elsewhere), the frames will be more legible and convincing, and I’ll have to send copies of the page layout to the Magritte agents for their approval — a lot more bother and contingency. And as my linking demonstrates, it’s easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy to find copies of the tableau floating around the Internet.
I’m not whining about having to pay the Magritte agents; that’s what I expeced when I contacted them. I didn’t expect quite the complexity of the negotiations, and the whole experience underscores part of the point of the whole essay, that is, the reculiar relationship between words (which, though copyrighted, can be quoted freely for academic purposes) and images (for which payment and design approval will be requisite). Go figure.

4 thoughts on “Copyright Headaches Of An Academic

  1. Words can be quoted freely? I wish my publisher’s agreed with you. I have to get permission (by ‘get’ I mean, ‘pay for’) permission to quote more than one line of H.D.’s poetry.

  2. re: “certainly Magritte’s brilliance warrants his heirs eliciting their full due”–

    actually, this isn’t at all certain to me. Why is Magritte’s brilliance his heirs’ “due”?

    re: “the agents for Magritte’s rights”–

    he’s dead. Only a lawyer could imagine that he now has “rights.”

    Your frustrations show just how absurd so-called “intellectual property [sic] rights” have become.

  3. Fair play, Michael. What I should more accurately have said is, ‘In these circumstances, I don’t care to question the legal prerogative of Magritte’s heirs to continue benefiting from his brilliance’.
    In a different context, I do indeed question these rights. In this context, I’m focusing on the oddity that doodling a picture of a boat shifts one’s philosophical musings into an entirely different realm of copyright, fair use, and citation. I’m thinking of hand-writing my next book.
    Elizabeth, one line? That’s some fierce restriction.

  4. Copyright in images is notoriously complicated. I once published a volume edited by a colleague, who wanted to use a painting she had downloaded from the internet as a cover illustration. Not so simple.

    Whether the original illustrator is dead or not, and irrespective of who has inherited the original copyright, there is copyright in every reproduction, held by the person who (presumably with permission) made the reproduction. Thus, for example, a photographer who photographs a picture hanging in a museum can claim a fee, over and above what the museum would charge for using their picture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *