I could just about guarantee that I’m not the only underpaid indie author who has wondered about using a public domain photo on the cover of their new novel. Well, I finally decided to push this question to its logical conclusion, and I thought I’d share the process with you. I am not a lawyer, so don’t take me at my word! But I have at least one experience to pass on.
For me, the picture in question was from a manuscript in the British Library. The image is all over the Internet and, most importantly, on Wikipedia, a kind of the clearinghouse for public domain images, as I see it. For the record, Wikipedia tells us “the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.” Since I am using a manuscript illumination, that’s not a problem. I knew I could use these pictures on the Internet: a blog post, social media, and my webpage. But when it comes to something like a book, I knew somehow that the rules were different. First of all, copyright laws tend to cover the country of origin. Even if I could use it in the United States, what about Europe? I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) limit my distribution to just one country.
So I went to the British Library site (https://imagesonline.bl.uk/) where you can purchase a license. That was the easy part. Below the image you can click on an icon to determine the price. First they ask you a question: is this for personal use, advertising, editorial, or products? For personal use, the price is £7.50, for advertising the price is £691.20. I’m already confused, because if I take the image from Wikipedia for my personal use, it doesn’t cost anything.
Which category does my book cover fall into? I’m not a publisher or a business, so my book is being published personally. Isn’t it? What is the definition of advertising? Do they mean a picture on a coffee cup or a magazine advertisement, or something of that ilk? Is a book cover considered advertising? When I checked out the Terms and Conditions, it tells us, “Reproduction (allowed): includes any form of publication or copying of the whole or part of any Image whether altered or not, and derived from any Image whether by printing, photography, slide projection, xerography, artists’ reference, artists’ illustration, layout or presentation, electronic or mechanical reproduction or storage by any other means.” OK, my book is covered by “any form of publication”, I suppose.
So, taking this as permission, I paid my £7.50 and proceeded to fret about it for a couple of days. Finally, just to be sure, I sent an email to the support people and gave them a working copy of my cover with an explanation. They were very responsive. The next day I received an answer, telling me, “The licence you have purchased is only for personal use. Please let us know the print run and language territory rights required for your book. For front cover use the fee is much higher but we would deduct or refund the fee you have paid.” Well, that was that. Expecting the worst, I explained to them that my book was Print on Demand and I had no way of knowing how many were going to sell; it could be 10, or 100, or 500. I was already prepared to scrap the whole idea, having resigned myself to the worst. Imagine my surprise the next day to hear from them again: “The permission fee will be an additional £46.45.” That’s a far cry from £691 and change! Needless to say, I jumped on it (and printed a copy of the email for my records). And now I am the happy licensee of a public domain image that assuredly was inaccessible before the days of the Internet.
When it came time to publish my second book (a year or so later), I was expecting more of the same, since I used British Library again. I noticed that my “contact” was someone different and the procedure had changed somewhat. I told them I expected to sell about 500 copies, again Print on Demand. This time, the charge was £150—considerably more, needless to say! I was afraid to object so I paid it and considered myself lucky. Now, I’m about do it a third time (another year later). Who knows what I’ll come up with?
I have absolutely no idea how they arrived at a price. What I did learn is that in this new world, it behooves us not to assume anything. Had I not written that letter, I might have gotten myself into a lot of trouble. On the other hand, my image of choice was not out of reach after all.