or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 9/16/12

   September 22nd, 2012

All Is Vanity, by C. Allan GilbertThis question... well, this question is one of those that I dread. All too easy to answer, but the easy answer comes with a moral dilemma for librarians.

One afternoon my director came out to the Reference Desk to talk to me about something. While she was out there, a patron walked up and with this question:

Patron: There's a famous painting by an artist named C. A. Gilbert - it's of a women looking in a mirror, but it's an optical illusion that looks like a skull. Do you have a book with it in it?
Me: I don't know, but let's check.
Patron: It's a great painting - I want to photocopy it so I can put it on a t-shirt.

Okay, that last comment is what caused the warning bells to go off. I don't like giving patrons the "COPYRIGHT! DON'T STEAL!" talk, but I respect intellectual property enough to always work it in somehow. Each patron, and each potential copyright violation, is different, so I usual wait and try to either casually mention it in the course of the search, or make a very blatant parting statement after we find whatever we're looking for. But it's something no one ever wants to hear, most people don't care about, and makes me feel like a dork and a prude for pointing out. But I am a librarian, and I wear my dorkishness and prudishness on my sleeve.

My director, for her part, knew exactly what I was thinking (and dreading) copyright-wise, so she just kind of laughed and walked away, leaving me to it.

In this case, the patron was really excited about how neat this painting was, so we got right into the search. The first thing I did was search for "c a gilbert woman skull" online, to make sure we got the right painting and the artist's full name.

The first result was a Wikipedia entry for Charles Allan Gilbert, and when we clicked into it, the painting he was looking for was right at the top of the page. Great. Also great is that Wikipedia provided the name of the painting, All is Vanity.

Unfortunately, searches in our catalog for his name or the name of the painting were unsuccessful. There's always the option of going to our general books of American artwork and flipping through the tables of contents and indexes looking for these entries, but I could tell this patron wouldn't be happy with that.

So, I showed him how you could click the image on Wikipedia to see a larger version, and also how to use Google to search for high-resolution images (there weren't a lot of high-res versions, but tons of low-res images on all sorts of websites). That way, I said, he could just print from the computer right onto iron-on paper, to make his t-shirt.

He readily agreed, and it seemed like the time was right for The Copyright Talk (coincidentally, my director happened to choose just this moment to make her way back over to the desk).

Me: Oh and remember, not everything on the internet is always free to use. Some things are still under copyright, and you usually need to get permission before you use them or make things out of them.

I thought that was kind of smooth. But the patron turn to me straight on and just looked at me.

Patron (kind of offended): That painting is a hundred years old and the artist is probably dead, so it's not copyrighted any more. Besides, I'm not going to sell t-shirts, I'm just making one for myself.

I didn't want this to turn confrontational, accusatory, or preachy, but I wanted to persevere too (especially with my boss within earshot), so I just wrapped it up with,

Me: I think copyright can extend beyond the artist's life, depending on how the estate handles it. And even making a shirt for yourself might be a violation, because making one means you're not buying an officially-licensed one, which could impact their revenue. In this case you're probably all right because there were so many other copies of this painting on all sorts of websites, but it's a good thing to check into if you really want to be safe.

The patron agreed, but I think it was more to shut me up than because he was going to look into copyright.

Regardless, he thanked me, especially for showing how to find the high resolution image online, because that was something he hadn't tried. This was actually a couple weeks ago, and I haven't seen the patron around town wearing a new t-shirt, so hopefully he did the right thing.

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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 9/16/12”

  1. Michael Henry Starks Says:

    The image appears in Wikipedia on this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Allisvanity.jpg. Below the image is a statement saying the image is a file from the Wikipedia Commons, followed by a fairly complete and clear description of reproduction, copyright and licensing restrictions.

  2. sharon Says:

    It probably would have taken him less time to find that someone is already selling the image on a t-shirt. But, oh well.

    I had a patron who asked me repeatedly to show her how to copy our music CDs onto her Ipod. I tried to explain that I really couldn’t do that because of copyright restrictions, but that her teenager could probably show her. I suggested that she could just try popping a CD into her laptop to see what happens. We also went over buying music from iTunes and transferring it to the Ipod, so I think she finally put the pieces together herself. Anyway, she did stop asking.

  3. Al Says:

    I have a couple of friends who run small design businesses aimed at parents planning kids’ parties. The librarian in me bristles every time they post their latest ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ or Lego themed range of invitations, loot bags or birthday cakes. I’m surprised that as creators themselves they don’t seem to consider that they’re ripping off someone else’s IP, and certainly don’t seem to consider that as their businesses are all online the lawyers don’t even have to leave their office to discover the infringement!

  4. moonflowerdragon Says:

    I love the “Copyright Warning bookmark” you posted about – and which your “See also” served up with this post. Are you still using the bookmarks? Have you had advice regarding at which point a library would become liable under copyright law?

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Michael: I do point that out to patrons, but always give a warning anyway. Maybe too doom and gloom (especially in this case), but I want to make sure it’s something people keep in mind in the future.

    @sharon: we get that too – patrons bring their laptops in and then sit at a table with a stack of CDs. At least they could check the CDs out to give us the circ stats – sheesh.

    @Al: just wait until one of the invited kids’ parents happens to be a lawyer – that does sound risky.

    @moonflowerdragon: thank you. We do still keep those at each desk, but I don’t know how often they’re handed out. For some reason though, I didn’t even think of it in this case, but it would have been perfect. But it looks like that bookmark could be reworded to include online resources too, not just library material – thanks for reminding me of this.

    As for liability, I’m not expert, but my guess is that wouldn’t kick in unless library staff were either encouraging or performing illegal activity.

  6. Richard Mott Says:

    Thanks for a great model on dealing with potential violations of intellectual property rights.

    With your permission (see, I paid attention), I’d like to share w/ our training mgr for possible inclusion in training new reference staff.

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Richard: of course – and be sure to include covering the Wikipedia copyright note that @Michael pointed out.

  8. Amelia Says:

    I’ve had similar conversations with patrons and I feel that as long as I’ve said my peace I can leave them to make the decision for themselves.

    As for CDs we have a patron who just wants to listen to the CDs in the library, we make him check them out so we have the stats even though he never leaves with them.

  9. Alyssa Says:

    Hi there – I teach art history and I’m a librarian too. Brian’s right: generally speaking the artist’s estate, or more commonly the museum that owns the work, holds the rights to the image. Leonardo is long dead but the Louvre doesn’t just give everyone permission to use the Mona Lisa’s image – it’s lucrative for them. If it’s just one shirt it’s probably OK, but if the patron were selling them it’s a different story. Interestingly, if the art is changed or transformed in some meaningful way, like Duchamp’s “LHOOQ,” that should also change the licensing since it’s now a new work of art.