On the Legality of my Thesis

My thesis has five pictures in it. They have caused me quite a lot of problems, enough to merit this post, which will – I hope – veer between entertaining lament and useful advice about copyright and doctoral research in the age of the institutional digital repository.

My thesis has five pictures in it. They are:

  • Charles le Brun, La Tente de Darius (1661)
  • William Hogarth, David Garrick as Richard III (1745)
  • Adelaïde Labille-Guiard, Jean-François Ducis (1782)
  • Adelaïde Labille-Guiard, Brizard dans le rôle de Léar (1783)

And…

  • An engraving of Cleopatra applying the Asp, from volume six of Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1709)

All the above images can be found relatively easily on the internet. Problems arise, however, when one wishes to publish them in a thesis.

Let’s start with the four paintings. All of them, having been painted centuries ago, are in the public domain. Or, rather, the originals are. Unfortunately, images of paintings (i.e. images of images) have their own copyright, and many museums assert control over these. They are entitled to do so, since taking a photo of a painting, particularly a photo of sufficient quality for book reproduction, seems to constitute artistic labour in its own right. I say seems because British law is a little vague on this.

Thankfully, as a lowly doctoral student, I don’t need to use a museum’s expertly created images of their paintings for a book that is going to sell millions of copies. Rather, there will be exactly one copy of my thesis printed and stored in the Cambridge University Library. Given this situation, at least one institute (the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris) has – at time of writing – been kind enough to give me an image for free. Other places seem likely only to charge me a negligible amount.

Unfortunately, these days, PhD research is not just being made available in a room of the university library, it’s also being posted online, in digital institutional repositories (the Cambridge one is here). This means that whatever image I put in my thesis can have a potential audience of the entire online population. Rights for this kind of distribution do not, unsurprisingly, come cheap. Indeed, at least museum only allows me to rent online distribution rights for a year at a time, and not to purchase them at all.

The solution to this problem is rather radical. The online version of my thesis can only contain either public domain images (so pictures taken by myself, or whose creator has waived any copyright in) or empty frames, inside which I should write something along the lines of: “please consult the paper copy of this thesis to see this image.” Or, you know, Google it.

This image is copyright ©Boston Public Library. It may be used for educational, non-profit purposes.
This image is copyright ©Boston Public Library. It may be used for educational, non-profit purposes.

Enough with the paintings. The engraving is actually very similar. Rowe’s book is out of copyright, but the image of the book’s page may not be. In this case, however, there is an image of the image I need, which – while not fully in the public domain – is available for scholarly use, providing I give sufficient acknowledgement to the Boston Public Library. Which I shall do.

Thus concludes, for now, my adventures with copyright. Funnily enough, I actually talk a little about this topic in the course of my thesis. The first statute to provide for copyright regulated by the government (and not by private parties, like the Stationers’ Company) was the Statute of Anne in 1710. Its promulgation was a spur to the publication of both Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare and several of those that followed it. Early publishers of Shakespeare were just as interested in maintaining the rights to his work as modern museums are to their holdings now.


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