Ancient Marginalia: Do the Right Thing

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Imagine you’re a hot shot English translator living in Bruges.  It’s 1470.  You and a buddy set up a printing press to print your translation of a history of Troy. It takes off.  You’re on to something – you’re an artist with the means of mass producing your own work. So hot. You move back to England, get a press up in there, and print the first book printed in England – The Canterbury Tales.

Our hero.

Our hero.

You’re probably pretty proud of yourself.  You are, after all, THE William Caxton – first printer in England.  You leveraged a new media platform for self expression, social change, and as a sustainable business model.  You helped promote reading among non-elites.  Look at this screenshot of a cool $42 digital reproduction of a paper and ink image of you!

And there’s something else Caxton did.  Something sorta under the radar but that resonates with our current digital moment. On occasion, he would stitch together (literally – this is the 15th century, remember) pages from various texts to create unique ‘nonce books’ or sammelbande.  This Renaissance bricolage literature tied together sundry chapters, poems, illustrations, to create novel volumes.  Very tumblr.

It is somehow heartening to see this impulse for collage fusion and creative combination appear so early in print culture.  However, the wholesale borrowing, blending, and redistributing of 3rd party work could not really take off given the eventual logistics of content as property – copyright, attribution, and compensation.  As a widespread practice, the nonce-volume era withered on the vine.  Few were made, fewer remain, and those that do are very valuable.

This fate has somewhat changed; hyperlinks and server-side storage have resurrected bricolage publishing with a vengeance.  We are all right-click pirates now, each of us downloading booty to his own Tortuga Island.  And all that buried treasure is nearly impossible to track and recover.

What’s a content-rich bastion to do?  Forge stronger forts?  Build thicker balustrades?  Make more moats?  How about this: no walls, balustrades, or moats.

Just last October, The J. Paul Getty museum announced their Open Content Program.  In essence, they’ve made available 5,400 images free of charge for any use.  A whole room of the castle unbarred and laid bare.  Come and get it! (Just click the ‘download’ button under takeable images.)

Here’s some language from the Getty press release:

…the Getty…will not restrict use of available images, and no fees apply for any use of images made available for direct download…

This project goes to the heart of the Getty’s mission to share its collections and research as widely as possible… We look forward to seeing the ingenious, creative and thoughtful ways these images are being used.

Of course, this is awesome.  Curating objects cleaves to different objectives than digital curation.  The latter is concerned with preservation, maintenance, and added value – i.e. use.  Keep Klimt’s ‘Two Studies of a Seated Nude with Long Hair’ right there on the wall.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Give me the digital image instead.  Not to worry, the map is not the territory. I’ll give credit where the credits go. The original is untouched. Open content is digital curation best practices.  And so we may nonce to our post-post-modern heart’s content, unburdened by watermarks, pay walls, or ethical pangs.  With all the interesting experiments in digi-mediated collaborative creation like Cowbird, hitRECord, and Creepy Pasta, this all may culminate in a new art, a florescence of post-book sammelbande.

And now this: any image on Getty Images is free to embed anywhere anytime by anyone.  Perhaps this was inevitable. We know it’s not easy sustaining a business model based on objects so readily and regularly lifted, looted, and otherwise heisted.  So give it all away.  As a business model.  But how?

And here’s the nuance – the fun digital twist.  Unlike the downloadable goods from the museum collection, the free stock images from Getty Images are embeds, not downloads. You don’t get the image files at all – you get iFrame coordinates for the image file.  The embed code also facilitates the Getty receiving selected data from your site.  In essence, you get a two-way projector – one that displays the Getty-hosted image on your site and simultaneously displays your site traffic data to Getty.

Fight the Power has samples from 18 songs.  Why that's 18 ad ops!

Fight the Power has samples from 18 songs. Why that’s 18 ad ops!

Time for the air quotes: ‘free’ ‘image’ ‘on’ ‘your’ site. How can Getty spin all these air quotes into millions of dollars?  The 21st Century way – with big data and advertising.  It’s the latter that’s got Caxton rolling in his grave, I’ll wager.  How can we make beautiful nonce-books if all the usable parts contain piped in advertising?  Would we want to?  Musical compositions with looped samples would sound a bit different if each sample was preceded by a listener-specific 4 second advertisement.

The Getty Images site states “Getty Images is leading the way in creating a more visual world.”  More visual indeed, and more visible. Open download is good for art.  But is open embed?  While open content may be inevitable, there’s no guarantee it will be useful.

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Expert Publishing Blog
Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

About Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

Corey is an anthropologist, futurist, author, and speaker. He is busy imagining and enacting our digital future as Director of Experience Strategy at Neologic, a Portland-based agency and imagination lab. A Fellow of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, Corey regularly publishes and presents on the past, present, and future of media. He recently contributed the closing chapter to the book Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture.

5 thoughts on “Ancient Marginalia: Do the Right Thing

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  5. Corey Pressman (@cspressman)Corey Pressman (@exprima) Post author

    A quick addendum: The nice people at the Getty Museum have reminded me that “the Getty Museum and Getty Images are completely separate entities. Both founded by different members of the same family, a generation or two apart, but not connected in any way.”

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