Research in the RSA Archives feeds into major new study on the history of copyright in the visual arts

Posted on 27 September 2018


The Royal Scottish Academy and Copyright History: Art and Modern Copyright: The Contested Image by Dr Elena Cooper. The author writes especially for the RSA blog

Cambridge University Press have just published Art and Modern Copyright: The Contested Image by Dr Elena Cooper, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, CREATe, University of Glasgow. The book is the first in-depth and longitudinal study of the history of copyright protecting the visual arts: painting, engraving and photography, 1850-1911.

The Royal Scottish Academy was an important contributor to nineteenth century copyright debates, particularly the campaign culminating in the first copyright Act protecting paintings and photographs: the Fine Arts Copyright Act 1862. Dr Cooper’s book draws on the wealth of original documents held by the Academy’s Archive – original correspondence, letter books and manuscript notes – which were pieced together with the expertise and help of two of the Academy’s archivists: Joanna Soden and Sandy Wood.

The most interesting find was a manuscript draft of the Academy’s petition for copyright reform from 1861. The archivists confirmed that this was in the handwriting of David Octavius Hill, well known for his photographic partnership with Robert Adamson. In her book, Cooper shows how debates about copyright frequently intersected with questions of artistic status. That Hill supported the campaign for photographic copyright, and wrote to key members of Parliament, may explain why early drafts of the legislation implicitly acknowledged that photographs could be classed as creative works of the mind.

As well as exploring the relationship between debates about copyright and nineteenth century struggles for artistic status, the book uncovers a range of remarkable views about copyright: while there were familiar themes for us today – for example, the notion that copyright protects artists – other very different views of copyright were put forward, some of which differ starkly from how we think today. The broad range of perspectives on copyright are explored in Art and Modern Copyright in relation to four themes: the protection of copyright ‘authors’ (painters, photographers and engravers), art collectors, sitters (e.g. celebrities) and the public interest (e.g. the importance of art to improving the lower classes). In addition to considering the distinct nature of the contribution of copyright to the history of the cultural domain accounted for by scholars of art history and the sociology of art, Dr Cooper examines the value to lawyers and policy-makers today of copyright history as a destabilising influence: in taking us to ways of thinking that differ from our own, history can sharpen the critical lens through which we view copyright debates today.

The book will be launched at an event at the Victorian Picture Gallery at Royal Holloway, University of London, at 6.15pm on Wednesday 5 December 2018, where Dr Cooper will draw on the rich collection of nineteenth century paintings in the Gallery to illustrate the central themes of her research.
If you are interested in attending, please contact Dr Cooper: Members and Friends of the Royal Scottish Academy are warmly invited to the launch and are entitled to a 20% discount on the purchase of a copy of the book (available for a limited time only, please contact Dr Cooper).

Featured image: William Powell Frith (1819-1909), The Railway Station, (detail), image courtesy of Elena Cooper.