In a brief response letter, author and publisher Marc Aronson writes about the copyright status of pictures that are in publisher partner books in Google Books. Aronson suggests that the rights for pictures are separate from the rights for text. I’ve corresponded with Aronson to expand on this idea, and he says that in his experience as an author and editor, he has been told that he needs to obtain rights to pictures and text separately. I’ve searched for other commentary on this issue, and have found very little. It’s a subject that needs exploration. Anyone have ideas?

All books in the publisher partner program, of course, are under copyright, and are available only in Limited Preview, with the publisher giving Google the rights to display a specific number of pages. In some cases of books containing pictures, however, the pages are available, but without the pictures. Is this because the publisher has gotten the rights for limited preview of the text, but not the pictures, as Aronson suggests? The three examples below show a variety of Limited Preview options. The first two are especially pertinent, because they are for books from the same publisher (Macmillan), in the same series, that have a different picture preview status, possibly indicating that the illustrator has given permission to display pictures in the first case, but not in the second.

In this example, the first 39 pages* are available for preview, with all pictures displaying. There are about 30 thumbnail images for pages with pictures on the About this Book page.
Birds of North America (Golden Field Guides)
By Chandler S. Robbins et al, Illustrated by Arthur Singer, Published by Macmillan, 2001

In this book, from the same publisher, the first 37 pages* are available for preview, but almost all pictures do not display, replaced with the message “Copyrighted image.” There are no thumbnail images on the About page.
Wildflowers of North America (Golden Field Guides)
By Frank D. Venning, Illustrated by Manabu C. Saito, Published by Macmillan, 2001

This book follows the most common, fairly liberal, pattern of publishers in Limited preview books, with the first 50 pages* available including all pictures. A full complement of 30 thumbnails is on the About page.
Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers
By H. Wayne Phillips, Illustrated, Published by Globe Pequot, 1999

* The number of pages available for preview varies from session to session — The number given here is the maximum I experienced.

4 thoughts on “Copyright in Google Books: Pictures & Text

  1. The ‘rights’ position of illustrations in books is a nightmarishly complicated business; particularly for ‘orphan’ titles. The Google system will have to remove illustrations in most cases, because in most cases the publishers cannot speak with authority on the rights of reproduction in digital formats. Although many rights holders for illustrations are very relaxed about digital reproduction, some are ferociously aggressive and hard to do deals with (think Disney, Picasso and Warhol). I doubt that Google can establish blanket retrospective agreements in this domain. We are stuck with a position in which many digital books will have blanks where the picture should be. Alas.

  2. Here’s an email interchange on the posting between Marc Aronson and Eric Rumsey. Marc has given permission for this to be posted as a comment:

    Marc Aronson’s comments via email:
    I agree with Adam — and the examples you give are misleading [see clarification below] in a number of ways. For one, the rights cleared will generally be a function of what an individual author (or perhaps book packager) has cleared, not a policy set by the publisher — unless the book is, say, a 2009 book where the publisher may have considered this as a contract issue when the book was signed up. So there is no reason to suppose two books from the same house will have the same rights. And, to go beyond Adam’s point, any book that deals with a complicated topic in, say, history, will have archival images from many rights holders ranging from museums to personal collections to news agencies whose images are controlled by stock houses. So within the same book there will be a patchwork of rights clearances. And to be clear, rights holders not only charge more if you ask for more rights (download as well as print, ! say), but may have policies against downloadable or on-! screen publication. So the weakest actor here — the author, who does not have the funds or the legal staff of the publisher, not the clout and legal staff of the rights holder — is left to decide which rights to buy. Most often the author will seek to spend the least and meet the least resistance — and thus only request limited print rights. In these difficult times for publishers it is simply not possible that a publisher will go back to clear other rights for a form of distribution that yields little or no income. So the author did not clear the rights, and the publisher will not. That is simply the fact.

    Eric Rumsey says:
    I’m not sure what you mean about the examples being “misleading” – I’d be glad to consider better examples if you know of any.

    Marc Aronson says:
    Perhaps “misleading” was the wrong word, I did not mean that you intended to mislead. Rather, I wanted to alert you — and any readers — to a few particulars:
    1) same publisher is no guide to rights in individual books
    2) a book on something like a garden, or that is in a series on a given topic (birds, insects…) might possibly have all of its images from a single source, and thus there is more chance that all rights are available, but a book on a topic where there are likely to be many rights holders will have a complex backstory of rights cleared and not cleared.

  3. Thank you Adam and Marc — As you both say, this is indeed a highly complicated subject, and your views from the publisher/author side of things hopefully will bring it much-needed attention.

  4. Adam, Seems like you’re making a pretty strong statement, saying that Google will have to remove (or blank out) most pictures in orphan books — I haven’t found anyone else talking about this, have you? I hope you’ll say more about it — here or on your blog!

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