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 Brian Herzog

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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