Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book Covers in Timeline

Dear Rich: My company is creating a timeline type exhibit in the hallways of a school to commemorate the school's 150th year anniversary. This will be a permanent, museum quality exhibit that will span two walls and will remain in place for at least ten years. We are combining general history with highlights of the past 150 years. As a part of our background collage, may we include images of book covers for such well-known (and world changing) books as "The Origin of Species" and others. Will we need permission? Where do we begin to seek permission if necessary?  The short answer to your question is that you can probably get by without permission. It's true that your reproduction and display amounts to an infringement but odds are that the copyright owners won't learn (or care) about the reproduction and in any case, you have a decent fair use argument as a backup. There is one timeline case in which a court permitted reduced reproductions of concert posters under a fair use defense. Regardless of whether there is a reduction in size, the use seems transformative since you are using the book covers to make a point about your school's history. If you're especially prudent and want to seek permission, book covers published prior to 1923 are in the public domain (and the same is probably true for covers published before 1964). However, popular public domain books are often the subject of multiple covers as you can see from the presentation to the left (top left is the first edition). To obtain permission you would seek out the publisher and ask (most have permissions departments.) If the publisher has disappeared you can document your attempt to locate the owner and then be prepared to pay for any use at a reasonable rate should the copyright owner later appear -- called an orphaned works approach (name check!). By the way the Dear Rich Staff loves timelines (especially when they're about a cool movie director or  TV personality).