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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Counterproductive Copyright on Book Covers

Saturday, July 21, 2012

There has been a lot of debate recently about the system of academic publishing, and the need to adopt more open model of access. This is not about pirating information for free, but about using a sensible model to share research in the era of the internet. In a somewhat more prosaic way, I've recently encountered another case where commonsense does not currently prevail in the sphere of conventional publishing.

At present, I am involved in two projects to promote and demonstrate the value and impact of research. One project involves writing a major annual report for an interdisciplinary research institute; the report will be disseminated to a wide range of people, from the ordinary public to Fellows of the Royal Society. The second project involves developing a blog to disseminate the insights of our English department.

In both cases, naturally I want to promote the book publications of academics, such as by having an image of the book to accompany the text. One would have thought that from a publisher's point of view, such promotion would be welcome. Yet, perversely, publishers seem to maintain restrictive policies on cover copyright, so that in principle we ought to seek permission to reproduce even a small thumbnail of a book cover. For the annual report, which is printed, this is obtainable within the timeframe of publication. But when writing a blog, which demands a quick turnaround, such a policy is counterproductive.

Oxford University Press, for example, state that permission must be obtained when reproducing covers, particularly because covers may include images for which the publisher does not hold the copyright. This sensitivity may be understandable although it hardly seems commonsensical once we get to the level of reproducing a reproduced image in a 200 pixel thumbnail. Plus, if I visit any bookseller's website, the cover will appear there; and if it were appropriate for a university department to endorse the business of the likes of Amazon, we could include that image (held on Amazon's server) with a link back to their website.

On this note, take the publisher Continuum. In a forward-thinking way, they provide a "share" tool which allows one to embed a widget linking to a book, which includes an image of the cover. But on a Wordpress blog, this particular form of embedded HTML is not permitted, and as I understand it, to manually reproduce just the cover image one would need to seek permission.

Of course, one would like to think that commonsense would apply here, and that in practice no publisher would pursue a copyright claim for a small thumbnail image. For this reason, I have no qualms about reusing cover images on this personal blog. But clearly when dealing with the publishers of our academic authors, a university has to be aware of reputational risk. And so far as I can tell, technically to reproduce a cover image - even one that is already readily available elsewhere online, such as on the Amazon catalogue - is an infringement of copyright. At present, I am erring on the side of commonsense nonetheless, and also using cover images in my university projects. But as I do not have expertise in this area, it would be useful to have any of your thoughts on where we stand: is it acceptable to break the principle of copyright whilst adhering to the commonsense of practice? 

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Posted by Alistair at 10:58 am


Blogger Martin said...

You are correct; reproducing these images is a violation of copyright, regardless of whoever else is doing so. The only exception is in the context of academic criticism. If you are making substantial, academic comments upon the cover in a purely non-commercial (what does that mean? is a university really non-commercial?) context, then fair dealing provisions apply. Sadly, this remains largely untested.

It seems, also, that the commonsense approach is not really a good way forward. I can already envisage copyright being used as a weapon to harm free speech, as does LOCOG for the Olympics: if you say nice things about the book, you can reproduce the cover, if not, we'll sue you for doing so.

In short: I'd be careful and adhere to the letter, not the spirit, of the law.

11:05 am  
Blogger Alistair Brown said...

That's a fair point, Martin, and thanks for the warning - though I know you'll fully agree on the idiocy of the situation.

That non-commercial issue is a case in point. So I can reproduce the cover if the cover forms a link to the likes of Amazon (i.e. serving a commercial purpose, for a second-party retailer). But if I want to just use the image alone, with a link to the publisher's own website, for the purposes of disseminating new works in an academic field (i.e. non-commercial) that's not allowed - by the publisher themselves who stand to benefit, no less!

I do wonder about the fair dealing argument that might apply here. One could say that "for the purposes of criticism or review" reproducing a small image of the cover is valid, given that the cover will give some indication of the book's contents.

But I think, as it would be nice to iron this out for the benefit of others, and also to heed your warning about taking care, I could bash off some emails to publishers to confirm what their view is.

3:39 pm  

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