A mandatory $180 art school textbook about "prehistory to 1800" with no pictures, thanks to a lack of mysterious "copyright clearances"

Students enrolled in the Ontario College of Art and Design's Global Visual and Material Culture: Prehistory to 1800 are required to buy a $180 "custom textbook." Despite exclusively covering material that is, by definition, in the public domain, and despite a Canadian Supreme Court ruling that establishes a broad "fair dealing" exemption for educational materials, this year's textbook contains no pictures, because the school and the copyright holders (whatever that means in the context of material from "prehistory to 1800") can't agree on licensing.

In other words, this is a blisteringly expensive art book with no art in it. It will not serve as any kind of lasting visual reference. It's hard to see how it will serve any use at all. And it's mandatory.

Students have taken up a petition to protest the "preposterous" situation.

h1 Copyright and the pictureless Art History textbook (via Techdirt)

(Image: blank book opene, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from pandora_6666's photostream)


  1. And, at the end of the term, the school’s bookstore will mirthlessly offer rebuy it from students for $15.

  2. Follow the Money!
    According to the petition this text was published by the University.  What unbelievable greed

    “Dear all OCADU students taking LBST 1B04,

    Many of you have already heard that OCADU has made an art history textbook that has NO pictures because they could not get copyright permission in time.”

  3. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words don’t necessarily add up to a picture.

    Although just two words–greed and stupidity–provide a pretty clear picture of what’s going on here.

  4. Really Mr. Doctorow, you’ve got no idea what “copyright holder” could possibly mean in this context? With all due respect, it took a few moments of research to find that a photograph of a public domain work is eligible for copyright protection.

    The authors of the custom textbook could make their own reproductions of the public domain art pieces they wish to feature, but this would be time consuming. It makes sense that a publisher planning to sell a book for $180 ought to compensate those who provide the copies of the images they want to feature. Particularly since the authors obviously don’t have the time to obtain even a single one of their own photographs…

          1.  Ah yes, I see. Of course, writing a custom textbook for a single course on a well-established topic does seem like a total waste of time and carbon.

    1.  This comment makes me glad to live in the land of Corel v. Bridgeman and Feist v. Rural Telephone.  It IS sometimes possible to hold the US up to comparison to Canada be be glad to live south of the 49th parallel.

      1.  Thank you for that information. Really interesting stuff — perhaps my comment was overbroad. I based my claims on the Lawrence University Library’s discussion (written after the decisions you cite), which calls the copyright status of these photographs a “gray area.” After reading a bit about Corel v. Bridgeman the area doesn’t seem so grey to me. Clearly my “time consuming” logic has been rejected by US judges.

        Apparently the relevant case in Canada is CCH Canadian Ltd. v. Law Society of Upper Canada, in which the judge ruled “creativity is not required to make a work ‘original’,” but “that an original work be the product of an exercise of skill and judgment.”

    2. I’m quite certain that Cory is aware of those copyright issues.

      I suspect that he thinks they are utterly ridiculous.  As, indeed, they are.  

      I believe a few years ago, though, that several major British museums announced they would no longer pursue copyright on their art, which included modern pieces within the “death of artist + 70 years” rule?  So why not include those British-held artworks in the textbook? Or did they later do away with their largesse?

      Perhaps some other BB readers will enlighten us on these issues.

  5. I read a few years back that Bil Gates bought the rights for a lot of classical art. The rights to display it online or something.  I don’t know who he bought it from. I’ll see if I can find it.

  6. Has art history from prehistory to 1880 changed so much in the last 12 months that last year’s book is completely irrelevant today?

    1.  At my university there could be 2 or 3 (if you’re lucky) copies of the book for a 200+ person lecture. Good luck sharing.

    2. I am attempting this this semester. All of my books are 4+ editions older than the ones demanded on the syllabus. Sometime in the next week I’m getting my first homework back, and I will empirically determine if the problems are the same or not by looking at my grade.

    3. That depends on the nature of the book. If by “textbook” you mean a general reference book on a particular topic, a work of literature, or an anthology then, yes, the university library at the very least should have a copy of the book.

      However if we’re talking about, say, a textbook that’s used for a subject like introduction to calculus, or even an introduction to art history, it’s unlikely the university library will purchase a copy of it. This is especially true for textbooks that publishers purposely update every few years, which is why the “cash for textbooks” guys usually won’t touch ’em.

  7. An optional demand from the petition: 3) that the entire text from the textbook be put up online with the photos and that we may access them for a discount price

    This reminded me that technology isn’t neutral and if students are accessing required curricular material in an authenticated manner, such access can be tracked to reveal if they are actually studying or not. I don’t suppose this is the reasoning behind this particular case, just pondering.

  8. I don’t see what these students are whining about. They signed up to learn about Dada and they expected to get a conventional art history textbook? Pitiful.

  9. Serious art students need to head to the library. Then galleries, museums, the ‘net, etc. Attend openings, there’s usually free food/ booze early in the evening. Figure out who’s buying and why- this will require human interaction. Keep building up that portfolio. See art that’s way beyond your skill set. Know that many of your fellow students won’t bother to look past the textbook and instructor, which is harshly laughable in this case.

    1. You’ll have plenty of time to do all that when your professor drops you from the class for not buying the required text.

  10. It is lame that they couldn’t work out their work before publication, but since they failed to do that and one of the excuses given for the stupid high cost of such texts is payments for license to publish owned works, WHY in hell should they price remain $180?

    That’s blatantly pulling at the student short hairs when what is on display is their own incompetence negotiating or substituting. 

  11. They missed an opportunity to bilk students out of more money. They should have left blank spots for the missing pictures. Then they could sell “Art from Pre-1800 Stickers” in packs of 10. Collect all  2387 to complete your book!

  12. If I was an art school student, I wouldn’t mind paying (a smallish) premium for my textbook, if I knew that the colors were more accurate, the pages were bigger, and so on. A lecture on Gaugain’s use of color can’t be illustrated by black and white images. 

    Similarly, such content challenges the limits of black and white copy machines.

    But, to charge for the glossy hiqh quality paper stock, the color, the large page size, the high quality binding and not use them for what they were intended to reproduce is just absurd.

  13. Obviously this “textbook” is actually a work of postmodern art, a radical reinterpretation of what an “art textbook” is. What could be more postmodern than an art textbook without any art in it? And the students being forced to “buy” the book are clearly part of a performance art piece and the $180 is merely a very reasonable fee for what will undoubtedly be a valuable investment in the art market of the future.

  14. um… just don’t buy it and don’t read it. I didn’t but LOTS of the books I was required to read in college because I couldn’t afford it. I never failed anything, and  went to a very good university.

      1. As an honest-to-Pete bona fide card-carrying college perfessor, I have to ask: How the hell do you enforce buying a textbook?

        1. Ask your students to bring it to class, then drop them if they don’t. Most professors would be horrified, but schools are starting to look for protection money alternate revenue streams.

          1. Oh, come on.  You’re saying college students aren’t smart enough to slab some stickers and cardboard around a stack of laser-printer paper?  Or fake a receipt and a back injury?

            Well, okay, maybe you’re right.

  15. ” It will not serve as any kind of lasting visual reference.”

    Not true, it is a visual reference of the incompetence of bureaucracy, and possibly a evocative protest of copyright laws as well as maybe a work of conceptual art.

Comments are closed.