Posts Tagged ‘copyright’

Wonder why art books cost so much lately?

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

How much for the lady in the window?

I hold in my hands  a slim, attractive book of a little over 100 pages.  The well- (but not lavishly) illustrated paperback costs 50 bucks.

The reason:  it includes art reproductions. No, I’m not talking about the cost of 4-color reproduction, special shiny paper, et cetera.  These images are reproduced on regular paper stock.

Over a quick dinner at the Stanford Faculty Club, the author told me that his small publisher had to fork out $25,000 in royalties to secure 30 images for a press run of 1,000 books.  That’s $25 per book for artwork, before you even factor in the costs of reproduction.  Nearly $1,000 per image.

Nor are we talking about spanking new artwork, fresh from SF-MOMA, or the need of starving artists to buy kitty litter for their cats.  These are all old paintings — some several thousand years old.  They are all in the public domain.

Basically, it’s the photo rights monopolies like Bridgman Art Library and the museums who own the paintings and charge though the nose. These controlling entities make using full color photos in books prohibitively expensive. Especially for books put out by the shoestring academic presses. You are paying for their images of the images — and no, you can’t go to the museum and take your own snap.

Our current copyright mess is not, of course, confined to images.  Words get pretty messy too.  For my own book, An Invisible Rope, which should be out within days, I had to pony up to more than four different organizations for rights to republish a small handful of poems, poems excerpts, and a few chunks of letters:  HarperCollins in the U.S., Penguin in the U.K., the Andrew Wylie Agency in New York, the Andrew Wylie Agency in London, and as a few others as well.  Andrew Wylie (nicknamed “the Jackal”) is, of course, notorious for his tough dealings and arrogance (no, I don’t know much about his latest electronic deals and can’t comment).  I have to say my dealings with the Wylie Agency — for three books now — have been unfailingly cordial, professional, and fair.  I have nothing but good things to say about Wylie.  Nevertheless, I was in some cases paying for translators to cite poems they themselves had translated.  In other cases, I was paying to cite iconic poems that are already all over the internet.


Our whole copyright law is screwy, and my own book (as well as my friend’s) demonstrates it.  (See Carol Shloss of James Joyce lawsuit saga fame for a true horror story — copyrights controlled by one whack job destroyed a generation of Joyce scholarship.) Copyright is not designed for heirs to control what scholars say about an artist or author — even though that’s how it’s been used by the Joyce Estate and the Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath Estate, and others.  Nor should it be legalized extortion.  Rather, it is to protect the financial interest in an artists’ works.  So, say, on a Lescaux cave drawing or an Ptolemaic mural — whose interests are being protected?  My own limited use of poems will not damage anyone’s pockets — in fact, I sincerely hope it will increase interest in Czesław Miłosz‘s oeuvre.

However, this impoverished writer is feeling lucky, after a dinner with the author, that she only had to shell out several hundred bucks for permissions (though it came out of my own pocket, not my hardscrabble publisher’s).

Postscript on 12/5: More thoughts from the worldwide web:

The incomparable jazz scholar Ted Gioia wrote at Facebook:

Yes, this is all too true. In many instances, the person who has the rights to the images included in a book makes more money than the author.

And Blogger Art Durkee wrote over at Books Inq., where this post was linked:

I’ve been to several museums lately, and mostly they let you make non-flash photographs of their permanent collections, for personal or scholarly use. But they make you pay through the nose for any commercial use. It’s partly about control, yes, but it’s also partly about making money from their collection. It’s an interesting conundrum. The copyright control of the aspect is actually fairly open-ended, and perhaps more open to question than they would lead us to believe.