Friday, 13 February 2009

Auctions and the copyright of old photographs

The world of photography is agog that Annie Leibovitz has pawned the copyright of all her past photographs and all her future photographs to raise £15M to pay her debts. This and the story I am about to tell you should illustrate why copyright is so important to every photographer.

On a break between classes yesterday I went to an auction at St Andrews Hall in Norwich which are regularly held by Barnes Auctioneers.

It was mostly tat, stuff from house clearances and not a fancy antiques show. The auctioneer stood on a chair by the tables piled with mixed lots of old books, crockery and naff ornaments and with each sale moved on to the next table, the hammer falling every 30 seconds or so.

One lot there caught my eye though. There were two leather albums of photographs taken apparently by an autograph hunter between the 1950/60's who had taken hundreds of photos of celebrities visiting Norwich. Starting with brownie sized prints, they later acquired an Instamatic. Some of the better shots were blown up and subsequently signed by the subjects. Many of the people are forgotten now but some like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would be of interest to anyone. I was amazed to think that here was the life's work of Norwich's very own
Gary Lee Boas.

I'm always interested in personal photo albums as a rich source of social history but there are many people who can turn a buck with unseen images of celebrities. You just never know who that dame on the arm of a movie star caught in the street might turn out to be. As Boas has shown, there is a market now for amateur paparazzi or fan photos that never existed a few years ago. It was one of the last lots so I had a few minutes to peruse it and I fell in love with it but I knew I wouldn't go above £20 for it (even though I didn't know at the time the auctioneer expected £600 to £800 for it).

When the auctioneer finally got to lot 179, they described the lot as one having great interest - so obviously other people think as I do - and he had several bids on his book and went on to say as they were unpublished photos of celebrities there was obviously some commercial value in them and the successful bidder would acquire copyright.

This statement amazed me. The first proposition was likely true but only on the second proposition being a fact. How could the auctioneer say that? If the photographer was dead, whatever heirs there were would have the copyright of these images for 75 years.

I checked with auctioneer's clerk, there was no provenance or paperwork with the lot. Anyone buying the album could not publish or put these images into a photo library without violating the unknown photographer's copyright and just because they didn't know who the photographer was, it didn't give them the right to do it.

All the buyer got when the hammer fell for £280 was the paper of the photographs and the albums, not the right to publish them.

I think this incident illustrates that every photographer (and artist) should make a will and should explicitly state who inherits the copyright to their work. You never know how such things might be valuable. And people in the antiques trade need to brush up on their knowledge of artists and authors copyright.

Incidentally Gary Barnes the auctioneer had recently been on TV's Bargain Hunt (to be broadcast in March 2009) and had lost the competition and so he flogged his fleece jacket from the show for £2.

A box of sheet music came up and when nobody bid ten pounds, the auction went into reverse and I got the lot for £1 (plus 10p premium). I took it back to school and unpacked the box on the common room table which attracted the interest of other students. Also in the box were some embroidered rambler's patches and a few vintage souvenirs and an old cricket book which people readily offered me 50p and £1 each for so turning me a quick profit.

Although I had just bought all this sheet music at the auction, I'm sure BMI or ASCAP would assert most forcefully that I didn't then have the right to publish it, wouldn't they?

No comments:

Post a Comment