Copyright and the pictureless Art History textbook

September 16th, 2012

Note: The misunderstandings that led to this issue have been addressed by OCAD University as detailed in the updates at the bottom of this article, however as I find out, It’s As Bad As That And Worse

There is a lot of discussion over on Techdirt about this, and I’ll post any pics of the book and its contents here when I have them.

My daughter started at OCAD University this fall.

One of her main required courses is Global Visual and Material Culture: Prehistory to 1800 which, as you might guess, requires a $180 textbook.

Students are required to buy the newest version of this textbook, presumably because as you well know, stuff that happened in the period spanning Prehistory to 1800 changes every year.

This year, however, the textbook for Global VISUAL and Material Culture has no pictures. Students have been told that the publisher couldn’t get the copyright permissions settled in time for the print run, so students will have to read the book, and see the pictures online by following along on their computer.

There is no discount on the $180 price for an ART textbook that has NO PICTURES. Devoid of pictures. Bereft of art. If I am going to have to pay $180 for an art history book that is of no resale value to next year’s students, it had damn well better be an excellent visual reference with hard cover and full colour plates, to keep around for years, festooning my coffee table and that of my heirs.

Someone has started a petition against this idiocy. I’ve signed it because I’m not particularly interested in paying any amount for an imageless art history textbook.

I’d be interested to know how this wasn’t an issue with the book last year (or any previous year for that matter), and which Renaissance painter rose from the dead to claim copyright.

I thought Canadian universities had figured this all out but it seems they’re still waffling, and if and how that relates to textbooks I’m not sure.


From what I can gather so far, this is a new book that one commenter on the petition calls “perfectly geared to this course”. I’m not sure whether that means it was specifically written and published to be used for this course, but its early incomplete release seems to be aimed at making it available for this semester. Since another book was used last year for the same course, I cannot see why last year’s curriculum could not be followed until the new book is ready rather than introducing a new curriculum based on an incomplete and rushed-out publication. How is it that the instructor is so committed to this particular text that this very peculiar choice would have been made?

OCAD Response:

Below is the relevant section from a letter to the students of this class from the dean. An open discussion has been scheduled for this week to help the students to understand the issues. I’m glad to see the school is taking steps to address the concerns raised due to the poorly communicated change in resource material.

Global Visual & Material Culture: Beginnings to 1800 is a custom textbook that basically combines three
textbooks into one:

1. Art History, 4th ed. by Stokstad and Cothren – excerpts from the full 1150-page text.
Volume One would retail for $144.

2. Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, 2nd ed. by Drucker/McVarish – excerpts.
This volume would retail for $92.

3. A custom reader with all the additional material we have added (which includes printed images)and would cost approximately $65 – $75 (see page iii of text for list of items).

You have also been given access to electronic versions of the full Stokstad/Cothren and Drucker/McVarish texts with all the images.

The book is complete as printed and is not missing pictures because we didn’t get copyright clearance in time. If we had opted for print clearance of all the Stokstad and Drucker images, the text would have
cost over $800.

13 comments to “Copyright and the pictureless Art History textbook”

  1. They could use the award-winning online text, Smarthistory.com for free.

  2. Look, I found one with PICTURES


    And they managed to keep their cost down from 800.00

  3. But the three listed have pictures. I reread the letter and found an article (http://tinyurl.com/9ftjual) where I now understand this better.
    Definitely better to require all three instead of an incomplete copy of each.

  4. Honestly, Brent, you lost me at $180. For $180, Disney’s Pocahontas better deliver that book to my house and paint every one of those pictures with ALL the colors of the wind.

  5. Oh, hai! Pearson Education.

    I’m sure rights are hard to obtain when the company already owns the material? Sounds like someone lost the source images.

    I’m sorry this happened.

  6. Fantastic. My daughter is taking the same course. I was looking forward to looking through the book at the “pictures” when she brings it home. My husband raises a good point. Why not give them an electronic book with links to web page images of the art?

  7. Well as a former OCAD U student (for 1 year only) I can tell you that all OCAD cares about is the amounts of money it can suck out of its students while they last. I was very excited to be an OCAD U student but after two months of being there I realized I’d better go to a real art and design school if I want to succeed in that field. This story with textbooks proves the point very well. I am so glad I am no longer associated with OCAD U.

  8. Well, universities, this one or any other, don’t profit from it. The money goes to the publisher. Maybe there were more reasonable alternatives, but this is not a matter of alterior motives.

  9. the joke is it’s like three weeks until these 480 outraged little brats all start demanding full grades for half-finished assignments because they “couldn’t get all the research stuff in time.” i hope the instructor will have the presence of mind and the administrative support to tell them to go to hell.

  10. Disclaimer: I have nothing to do with OCAD, but as an instructor at a similar institution I do have some knowledge of how these things work, so I can take an educated guess.

    It’s very difficult to find a single text that covers everything an instructor wants to cover in a course. But if you ask students to buy several texts for one course, you can be sure you’ll hear a lot of complaints—some students simply can’t afford it.

    As I understand it, an alternative is to put together a customized “text” from several sources. It’s not a book in the same sense as the source books are, in that it selectively chooses only certain chapters or articles to include—it’s the equivalent of reprinting articles or chapters. But copyright law is applied very rigorously to educational institutions—they can’t reproduce so much as half an article without paying fees. That’s the fault of the way the law is applied, not the universities that have to work within its requirements.

    The publishers of the original books charge the universities for the right to reproduce material. It sounds like getting the rights to reprint the pictures is what would raise the costs to $800.

    The university doesn’t make a profit on this. They are charged by the publisher and pass the costs on to the students. In this case the students get a text that is customized to include what the instructor/course wants the student to learn, and it’s a little over half the cost of getting all 3 books. I guess they did a cost/benefit analysis and decided to keep the costs down as much as they could by providing some material in book format and the images online.

    That’s my best guess for what’s going on at OCAD—though I do think that it would be reasonable to allow students to buy the source books instead, though, if they want to pay the extra costs.

  11. This is what Student Unions are for. http://www.ocadu.ca/students/student_union.htm

  12. Let me explain this story in plain words and by numbers.

    1. All pre-1800 visual materials (paintings etc) are copyright free. Reproduce them all you want.

    2. Quality digital images of these materials are not free and even not cheap, as producing them is really not cheap (you actually need to travel to dozens or hundreds of museums and pay them for using commercial photo equipment there, they charge for that).

    3. A certain publisher has paid for gazillions of these images and printed three different textbooks. Their total retail price is 300 dollars. This value is the cost of printing, the price of images, the price of the text, the profit margin and so on — DIVIDED by the number of printed books.

    4. A certain college professor realizes that his students need all three books to take the course. But 300 dollars is a lot, so he and the college look for a better solution.

    5. They decide to publish a partial compilation of these three textbooks for a lower price and approach the original publisher. He does not mind and tells them the price of copyrights. It’s a resonable price, but when you DIVIDE it by the very small number of books the college needs, it’s 800 dollars per book. Not good.

    6. They compromise: the compilation is printed without pictures, the pictures will be available for students online for free, all three original books with images will be available for students online for free — when they buy the compilation for 180 dollars. Instead of paying 300 dollars for the three books. Everybody is happy, everybody wins.

    7. Except a small number of slacktivists. They are not happy, but luckily they don’t win either.

  13. I think if a professor has too many ideas for a course then their students can afford, I think it is their responsibility to adapt their course to their students needs…with pictures. I took a course extremely similar to this one in my BFA out in Edmonton and I tell ya, that course was excellent and it had text books with pictures, no input needed. It’s an embarrassment to OCAD that it took this issue making national news for it to be resolved. I was thinking about an online course in October with these guys, but now I’ve had the chance to see a bit of the dirty laundry behind them, I think I’m going to look elsewhere. Schools such as these are notorious for ‘value for dollar’ issues, mine was no exception, but I thought this school would’ve been a break from that, not the exact opposite. And like it’s been said, it’s not like these courses reinvent themselves every couple years, this isn’t engineering, it’s history, it stays the same, and if the teacher can’t work within that without student guidance, well I wouldn’t want to sit in front of them for four months.