Emboldened by the fact that Tongues of Fire is downloaded from this site 25 times a week, I’m thinking of putting another, more ambitious work of fiction online. I’d like to illustrate it and otherwise add elements of “multimedia.” The perfect illustrations (since I cannot make my own) would be certain Old Master drawings by the likes of Guercino and Domenichino. Unfortunately, there are remarkably few such images online, because the owners of the originals tend to refuse permission to disseminate them electronically. Even public museums usually block people from photographing their collections unless we agree not to sell or give away the images we make. For the same reason, the countless beautiful illustrations in my University’s Art Library are not to be copied. I have been looking at old books–volumes published more than 75 years ago–that reproduce baroque master drawings. They contain many beautiful images that would fit my purposes perfectly. The books are in the public domain, but what about their illustrations? Does the Queen of England own the rights to a photograph taken of one of her drawings in 1900? What about an etching or mezzotint that reproduces a drawing that she owns?
I am trying to obey the law, but only because I don’t want to encounter problems later. From a moral point of view, I find it outrageous that owners of beautiful objects, especially public libraries and museums, should prevent their electronic reproduction. As a result of this short-sighted and selfish policy, an extraordinarily small proportion of great art can be found on the World Wide Web.