English drunkards of the early 20th century

Here's a set of mugshots of "habitual drunkards" scooped up in Birmingham's enforcement of the 1902 Licensing Act. Their images were distributed to pub owners along with the instruction not to sell them alcohol. The accompanying bust-cards enumerate their professions and crimes -- "woodchopper/prostitute," "polisher/prostitute," "tube drawer" and "grease merchant" all feature.

Bizarrely, Ancestry.co.uk asserts a copyright over these public domain images taken by the police over a hundred years ago.

Binge Britain 1904: The rogues' gallery that shows war on booze is nothing new


  1. The pictures are amazing (this popped up on fark earlier to great hilarity) but the copyright notices jumped out at me too – can anyone explain? Maybe they own the documents the images come from but given their age they surely can’t assert any sort of exclusive copyright.

    1. I’m not a copyright lawyer, but I believe the theory is that they don’t hold a copyright on the photographs; they hold a copyright on these particular retouched scans of the photographs. It sounds a little implausible to me, and I don’t know if it would hold up in court, but I bet that’s what they would tell you. (I believe it would depend on whether the retouching they’d done was enough to create a derivative work. But I’m speaking ex recto here.)

      Photographs of uncopyrightable things — e.g., trees — are copyrightable. Is a scan fundamentally different from a photograph? In one sense, it is — a scan is supposed to be a perfect reproduction, adding nothing new, so there’s no room for artistic interpretation. But scans are generally tinkered with, and retouching can involve real artistry.

  2. Jim, sadly, they can. The claim won’t stand up in court if anyone challenged it, but there’s no penalty for falsely claiming copyright over PD material.

  3. It asks at the bottom of the article if I know anyone in these photographs…Not bleeding likely guvv’na!!

  4. It’s very likely because these photographs would not have been published until now; UK copyright law used to work on the basis that photographs had a shorter period of copyright but it began running from the point when they were made available to the public.

    The law in this area has changed at least 3 times since those photographs were taken (the Copyright Acts of 1911, 1956 and 1988) and in particular the 1988 Act brought in some clean-up provisions to try to tidy the whole legal mess up. I’ll have to look them up but off the top of my head the answer will either be:

    a) Yes, because of an old quirk in UK copyright law these photographs are still in copyright;

    b) No, somebody has misunderstood how the law has evolved and thinks (a) is still true.

    Re the other comments, it may be that there is an attempt to assert copyright by minor editing of the work but there’s plenty of case law that says that this doesn’t affect copyright duration unless there is such a change as to make it essentially a new work. (Otherwise books could be kept in copyright for ever by minor textual edits.)

    1. “(Otherwise books could be kept in copyright for ever by minor textual edits.)”

      Oh, they *can* be (and are). However, this doesn’t affect the copyright of the original item, just the minor edited version. A good example is collections of Shakespeare’s plays. Obviously Shakespeare’s works themselves are public domain, but you can’t just scan a recently published paperback of the plays and release it legally (or even just use its text as the basis for your free version, as there are editorial decisions on what version of the text is “definitive”). That’s why groups like Project Gutenberg make sure that their editions are based on out of copyright editions even for authors like Shakespeare that are centuries old.

  5. These photos remind me of the characters portrayed in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – there seems many a wretched laborer amongst them. They also seem to show that hats like bowlers were not necessarily hats of the ‘middle-class’…

  6. Some of them look uncannily like the drunks I get in my store.
    Tonight I shall drink in honour of their pickled corpses.

  7. Have a care, good Sir!

    If we were to allow such reprobates any Liberty and Sufferance at all, the very Substance of our Moral, Christian Society would be in Peril!

  8. Re my earlier comment, I’ve looked at Ch.6 of Copinger & Skone James on Copyright (the bible for UK copyright lawyers) and reminded myself just how murky the law is. It’s even worse than I thought – there was an amendment in 1995 to the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act that applied the ‘Death plus 70’ rule to even very old photographs. It turns out now that for a photograph taken before 1956, whether published before or not, the duration of copyright is no longer 50 years from the date the picture was taken (the old rule) but instead 70 years from the date the photographer died. And whoever now has these pictures cannot be absolutely sure that the photographer died before 1940, so they are classic ‘orphan works’ – possibly protected, but nobody knows.

    Ironically, one of the features of the much-maligned Digital Economy Bill, if passed, will be to make it much easier to re-use orphan-work photographs. In a double irony, organisations such as the British Journal of Photography, which have led the way in the campaign against police harrassment of photographers, are adamantly opposed to this as they see it as a rights give-away.

  9. Anybody know what the complexion: “fresh” denoted? What about peculiarities: “ruptured”?

    1. Fresh would seem to denote a “healthy,” ruddy complexion: as opposed to sallow, which is on a few of the cards. They all look pretty bad to me, though.

      Ruptured likely refers to a hernia, although how they can see that is unclear: perhaps herniated to the point of affecting one’s gait or movement? Maybe they wore a truss? Perhaps the police had Tufte’s handy “How To Tell When Someone Is Wearing a Corrective Hernia Truss under Their Clothes” chart? Perhaps the police patted the man down while in custody and noticed?

      The people all look incredibly sad to me.

      1. “Ruptured” probably refers to capillaries on their face being visible. Long term drunks get broken or ruptured capillaries on the cheeks and nose that look like a network of small red lines. They also get little bruises as the vessels rupture.

        1. That’s the usage amongst the old folks in my part of Appalachia. I’ve heard “gin blossum” in other places.

        2. Perhaps, but it’s interesting that we don’t actually see that on the man’s face: longterm broken-capillary drunk-noses are generally visible. These aren’t the most detailed photos, sure, but still…. It’s also interesting that none of the others have this listed: broken capillaries, as you say, are common. Finally, the OED doesn’t record this as a sense of ruptured: not conclusive evidence, to be sure (and 23refugee’s info. is important contra this), but nevertheless interesting. Wouldn’t this be recorded under their facial features?

          This is making me think of Bloom’s thoughts of Paddy Dignam’s alcoholism in Ulysses:

          Blazing face: redhot. Too much John Barleycorn. Cure for a red nose. Drink like the devil till it turns adelite. A lot of money he spent colouring it.

          As Bloom says later, “O misery!”

          1. This usage certainly could have evolved distinctly. The people had left Great Britian some time before 1900.
            In my youth, drunkeness was seldom acknowledged. The only term, usually whispered, for an alcoholic was “sot”. To this day, when many locals are asked what they’d like to drink at a restaurant that serves alcohol(if they’ll even enter it), they indignantly inform the server that they DON’T DRINK. I always assumed that they got all the moisture they needed from gravy.

  10. Simon Bradshaw–But Ancestery.com seems to be asserting that THEY hold the copyright. Unless we’re to believe that they figured out WHICH constable took each photo, AND tracked down their Heirs and Assignees* I suspect that they are indeed asserting a copyright in the scans of the photos. Just like UK museums claim copyright in scans of public domain artwork. If they truly believed that the original photographs were covered by copyright, under what theory are they copying and distributing them?

    *Of course I have no idea whether these could be considered works made for hire in the UK, as they would in the U.S. Could they be Crown copyright? Although that does NOT seem to be what Ancestery.com is asserting.

  11. interesting, and sad. any idea what the meaning is of the various “dots” people have tattooed here and there? prison tats, or what?

  12. This explains the attraction of “The Smoking Gun” mug shots galleries. It’s a tradition.

  13. Ancestry.com has a long reputation of buying up free databases and then sticking them behind paywalls. It doesn’t surprise me that if they can claim copyright, they will.

  14. Oh, just actually looked at the photos. It’s very interesting trying to diagnose problems from them, you rarely see such gross pathology nowadays because it’s treated when people are young, or never occurs.

    There are a couple of people there with quite definite foetal alcohol syndrome, the first man has obvious strabismus or amblyopia, the twitching man probably has delirium tremens, and pretty much all of them were malnourished looking at their height. It’s low even for the times they lived in.

  15. With any luck, the brilliant boys at Ancestry.co.uk will send a Cease and Desist order to Boing Boing for using the image in this report. Then Corey can have some fun. >:D

  16. Benjamin Bloxsidge looks ready to cause some trouble, but it seems like the sort that would be fun right up until you get caught or killed.

    I love that Dirty Dick has radically different eye sizes but his distinguishing characteristic is the pug nose. (Though what a nose!)

    It is sad that these guys were so obviously poor, malnourished, and mistreated in general.

  17. That is one of the more interesting features of copyright law. Once a work is placed in the public domain, the general public can do anything they want with it, including copyright it. That is, if you publish a public domain work, you can then assert a copyright on that published copy. Of course, to enforce the copyright against a violator, the publisher would have to prove that the violator got the copy from the published work (or perhaps the other way around. I don’t know which party has the onus.)

    1. “That is, if you publish a public domain work, you can then assert a copyright on that published copy.”

      Sorry, that’s just wrong. Whoever told you that was mistaken. It is categorically, absolutely, utterly, totally, unequivocally untrue.

      1. Cory, I was under the impression that Microsoft and Apple copyrighted public domain stuff all the time. Viz, the utilities shipped with the various MS-Windows IP stacks (such as the FTP subsystem) and most of OSX.

        Does that only work when you can close up previously open sources such as BSD and PD works? Not applicable to stuff that isn’t machine-compiled?

        1. None of that stuff is in the PD.

          There are three ways that a copyrighted work can enter the PD (in the US):

          If it was a work-made-for-hire, it will become PD in 90 years.

          If it was a work whose copyright is held by an individual or collective of authors, it will be PD 70 years after the author or authors die.

          The copyright holder can put the work into the PD using a Creative Commons PD grant.

          Additionally, some works — factual works, nonoriginal databases, etc — are not copyrightable and are always in the PD (with minor exceptions — some collections of facts, such as medical research data, enjoy brief periods of exclusivity, on th eorder of 6 months).

          FTP doesn’t fit any of these categories. Some FTP utilities are licensed under a BSD-style license (which allows someone else to make a new tool with them without sharing that tool), and some are under GPL-style licenses (which requires follow-on users to share and share-alike, releasing their works under the same license).

          Apple uses a mix of GPL and BSD utilities in its OS. The GPLed utilities are distributed as sources and binaries on Apple’s site. The BSD tools, by and large, are not.

  18. They may have evolved separately, but this is still fascinating, and they seem likely to be related usages.

    Lolz re: the gravy.

    1. Thanks. Our self deprecating wit is one of our greatest gifts. It’s probably the reason the ignorant hillbilly stereotype is still acceptable even in the most politically correct circles.

  19. blu: “That is, if you publish a public domain work, you can then assert a copyright on that published copy.”

    Cory: “Sorry, that’s just wrong. Whoever told you that was mistaken. It is categorically, absolutely, utterly, totally, unequivocally untrue.”

    I’m pretty sure Britain has a ‘sweat of the brow’ stipulation in copyright law. If so, blu may be correct here. Collecting and digitizing (or whatever they did) these photos might pass that test.

    IANAL, nor British.

  20. To get married in Ohio, you must swear that neither person is a “habitual drunkard”. I’ve been married for nearly 20 years, and it still gives me giggles to have to had to swear so.

  21. It appears that a lot of these folks have been re-incarnated here in the states. Check out, rgj.com (Police Blotter)in Reno, Nevada.

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