14 August 2004

On the Border

Today's NYT discusses an issue of interest to art historians everywhere that should also interest a great many more people in the creative community, because it implies some important issues on fair use. Remember your "art history" or "western civilization" class from freshman or sophomore year? (If you haven't gotten there yet, don't worry—you will, or at least should.) Remember all of those slide shows in darkened rooms, with the professor droning on and on about particular details and the class frantically taking notes to enable regurgitation on a meaningless final exam? Over the last couple of years, that slideshow has gone Internet.

Unfortunately, the piece glosses over the thorniest copyright issue: Whether the photographs of public-domain art are themselves copyrighted, and therefore raise other problems. Perhaps glossing over this issue works in a narrow sense for this narrow article, because the participating institutions pay a license fee that no doubt buries a "no reuse of our property" clause in the middle. The question, though, is whether a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, nontexturized object bears its own copyright; and, if so, how far that goes. Any "automatic public domain" probably does not extend to sculpture; it probably does not extend to architecture; but does it extend to the Sistine Chapel, with the paintings on curved surfaces and texturized surface? How about a quilt, the designs for which have resulted in a surprising amount of litigation? And does the scan of the photograph raise yet more issues? Most importantly, are any of these rhetorical questions?

Also on the border today—this time of awareness, not of property—we find two obituaries. Many people have probably heard of, and even more probably seen, Julia Child and her cookery materials. Some would argue that the two hours devoted to cooking shows on weekend afternoons on most PBS stations, and even an entire cable-TV network, could not exist but for Julia Child. Personally, I'm more concerned with saving the liver, as I'm not particularly a fan of French cooking; at least I've never "cut the dickens out of my finger." On the other hand, we also lost Nobel literature laureate Czeslaw Milosz, whose poetry was some of the most-accessible and most-readable-in-English-translation work of the twentieth century. Both will be missed.