Thursday, July 05, 2007

That's the Spirit?

For a prime example of what happens when local officials are given the opportunity to control what others publish, consider the town of Marblehead. Hanging in Abbot Hall is The Spirit of ’76, Archibald Willard’s well-known depiction of two drummers and a fife player on a Revolutionary War–era battlefield, which he painted for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. The copyright expired decades ago. Willard also painted several other versions.

But the Marblehead rendition is considered definitive, and the
town selectmen have in their possession a high-quality slide. That slide is essential for anyone who wishes to republish the painting, since The Spirit of ’76 is shielded by a sheet of glass, and if you try to photograph it, the reflection will render it unusable.

You may not be surprised to learn that the selectmen are
extraordinarily protective of the slide and, well, selective about whom they will allow to borrow it. If you’ve got a nonprofit use in mind, or if you’re a textbook publisher, the selectmen might take pity on you and let you use it — usually for a $100 fee. If not? Well, forget it.

The selectmen’s policy has led to some truly bizarre decisions. Several years ago, they allowed Bob Jones University to borrow the slide for a textbook despite the university’s history of racial discrimination and anti-Catholic bigotry. Not that they shouldn’t have. But this past spring the selectmen turned down local historian Pam Peterson because the booklet in which she wanted to include it, Marblehead Myths and Legends, might (gasp!) make a little money.


Read more Instances of New England Infringements in the 10th Annual Muzzle Awards in the current Boston Phoenix.

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