Thou Shalt Not Steal, Part II

Who owns this pre-1923 image from an old Sears catalog?

Who owns this photo?

Shown above is a Wizard block-making machine. These were hugely popular for Sears and now they're in great demand as collectors' items. Apparently, they were well made and worked as promised. All for a mere $57.50!


I sure don’t want my wonderful fun-laden website to turn into an on-going tutorial on copyright issues, but several times in the last few years, people have asked me, “Isn’t an image from an old catalog the property of the creator of that catalog?”

With the blog I published on January 29th, that question has arisen again.

With a caveat that the following is *my* understanding of the vagaries and complexities of intellectual property as it relates to pre-1923 images, I’ll give this a shot, but bear in mind…

I am just a lowly writer. My husband is the smarty-pants lawyer, but even he is reluctant to render an opinion on intellectual property issues because these laws are intricate, complicated and forever changing.

With that in mind, here goes.

The image shown above is pre-1923, which means it is in the public domain (and therefore, no longer has copyright protection). The image originally appeared in a 1910s Sears Concrete Block catalog. After scanning the image, I also cleaned it up a bit, cropping it down and removing spots and crease marks.

Practically speaking, anyone who knows how to use “copy and paste” can lift that image from my site and run with it (as many people have). However, there needs to be some consideration as to what was involved in my acquiring that image.

1)  Research. How many people even know that Sears offered these block-making machines? How many people are aware that Sears had a specialty catalog devoted to block-making?

2) Expense. Through the years, I’ve spent countless thousands of dollars on research materials and old catalogs. And the expense of acquiring these materials doesn’t even touch on the time I’ve spent on the road, giving lectures and listening to people’s stories after the lectures. Because of this, I’ve learned so much from people of all ages, throughout the country. Such education is invaluable and irreplaceable, but it does not come cheap.

3)  Time. I don’t have the emotional courage to add up how many hours I’ve spent researching architectural history, but I’ve written six books on this topic and that alone has required thousands of hours. And scanning a 100+page catalog can take HOURS.

4)  Expertise, which, honestly, combines all of the above.

And then there’s the labor involved.

In most cases, the process of scanning a 90-year-old catalog destroys the binding. You’re left with an abundance of brittle pages that must be stored in an acid-free envelope or folder. And after the scanning is done, there’s the long, slow process of cleaning up each and every image.

Back to my original question: Who owns the image?

The following comes from Wikipedia:

In Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. (1999), the New York District Court held that “a photograph which is no more than a copy of a work of another as exact as science and technology permits lacks originality. That is not to say that such a feat is trivial, simply not original”.

In spite of the effort and labor involved in creating professional-quality slides from the original works of art, the Court held that copyright did not subsist as they were simply slavish copies of the works of art represented.

Although that case related to photographs rather than scans, it would be reasonable to say that by analogy the US courts would not grant copyright to a scan which has been enhanced – even manually – with a view to creating an image which is as similar as possible to the original.

Where the enhancement has gone beyond that, for example in bringing out selected details or colors not easily visible in the original, Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. may be less persuasive, and such cases should be considered on their own facts.

Seems that even for the courts, these are murky waters.

From my reading of Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., the act of scanning does not in and of itself constitute the creation of a “new” image that can be protected by copyright (which does not bode well for all the poor saps who scan pre-1923 catalogs and sell the CDs on eBay).

Conversely, when it comes to my contemporay photographs, those are most certainly protected by modern copyright laws.

However, even if my “scanned and enhanced pre-1923 images” are not protected by copyright laws (and it appears they may not be), the fact remains that from a literary standpoint, the ethical and professional thing to do is to give attribution and credit when materials are taken from another source.

And as Rachel has pointed out, it’s also the smart thing to do. This website gets 1,200+ visitors every day. Sharing some “Link love” is a sure-fire way to boost visitors at your own website.

In conclusion, if you wish to use any images from my site, please – oh please – just put my name with the image. Something like, “This image is used courtesy Rosemary Thornton,” or, “Image is courtesy”

It’s just the right thing to do.

And now, back to happy things.

To read about my beautiful “Atomic Kitchen,” click here.

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This is one of the happiest pictures I could find. Its my brother Eddie, licking the beaters after Mother had made some wonderful dessert.

This is one of the happiest pictures I could find. It's my brother Eddie, licking the beaters after Mother had made some wonderful dessert (about 1958). He stands in front of our home's fine-looking metal cabinets that were in our 1925 Colonial Revival house in Portsmouth. Check out the round handles on the cabinet's front. And to the left is a top-loading portable dishwasher, which we used to store dishes. It had a glass top, and some plumber told Mother that if she ever hooked it up to the sink, our entire plumbing system would explode and we'd have to have new lines installed, all the way from the city reservoir system to our sink. Or something like that. One night, when my parents went out, my brothers hooked up the dishwasher and let it run through a cycle. We were all relieved and pleased when nothing exploded. Lastly, check out Eddie's flannel-lined pants. So very cool!


Another happy picture is me,

Here's a happy picture of moi, studying the intricacies of our beautiful wooden staircase (just out of view). I always loved that staircase with its solid walnut banister, terminating with a winding volute. I spent my hours wondering how it was all assembled. Mother is jiggling the crib in an effort to distract me (about 1960). To this day, a soft jiggle is still thoroughly distracting.


To read about Frank’s beautiful Strathmore in Waldwick, NJ, click here.

Interested in the Sears Wizard? Click here!

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  1. Sue

    Excellent words. Thanks for the guidance.

    All that included, it just seems like good manners to acknowledge the work of those who have gone before us and given so much. Six books? Really? 🙂

  2. Sears Homes

    “Good manners!” That really sums it up beautifully.

    That’s really the core, underlying issue.

    Thanks for leaving a comment, Sue! 😀

  3. Rachel Shoemaker

    Another happy note! Just think of all of the naysayers that are visiting your blog the past two days to have a gander at your latest comments or others comments and in turn passing the information on bringing in more views.

    All of those hits are in your favor and move you up higher on the SEO lists!

    As if you can go beyond number one LOL. Oh, and thanks for the link love dear 🙂 I’m getting more hits than usual already.

    A wise blogger leaves comments at other blogs! Win win.

  4. Sears Homes

    That’s so true, Rachel. I had a very smart IT guy tell me years ago: Leaving comments at other people’s blogs is a GOOD IDEA to increase traffic at your own site.

    As to the naysayers, no matter what you do, or what you say, or how nice you say it, there are people in the world who just seem to enjoy being unpleasant.

    And for reasons I can’t fully understand, these blogs on copyright issues have generated double and triple the normal traffic!

  5. Dale Wolicki

    Ok Rose, the same individual stole an entire paragraph from the Aladdin Home article I wrote for “American Bungalow” magazine just a few years ago.

    All they did was change the word “Aladdin” to “Gordon-VanTine”.

    They probably copied it off the Wikipedia entry for Pre-Cut Homes but even there I am credited, so in my opinion this is plagiarism.

    Rose’s reply:

    It’s maddening, isn’t it, Dale? We’ve dedicated our LIVES to this research and then find it taken with no attribution. As you said elsewhere, if the offenders would just keep our name *with* the material, that’d be a start, but to strip away our name and take our material is pretty ugly.

    As you know, I’m in the process of writing a new book on Penniman, and the lengths to which I must go to get “permission to reprint” antique images from these institutions and museums is quite something!! In some cases, I’m waiting six weeks or more to hear back from these folks. And yet, it’s the professional and moral and proper thing to do.

    Conversely, dropping me an email and asking for permission would take – what – 20 seconds? I dont’ get it.

  6. Shari D.

    What awesome pics! Brings back some memories of my own baby pics from the late 50’s-early 60’s!

    Love Eddie’s expression as he stands there looking totally sated with his triumphant acquisition, and the whipped cream all over his face!

    And I know I’ve seen those flannel-lined pants on my brothers and even my sister, who came between the two brothers. Very warm, and durable as hell!

    They had to be to survive my three siblings.

    Looking at the kitchen sink too – did they even make metal kitchen cabinets like that in the 20s? I’ve seen them in tons of post-war kitchen catalogs of course, but don’t recall in pre-depression/Roaring 20s issues.

    Looks an awful lot like “Atomic Era” late 40’s ware, but as always, I could be wrong. That faucet style and the contour of the sink where it sits looks suspiciously post-war design too, as do the round handles, – maybe Crane.

  7. Sears Homes

    @Shari D.
    Shari, you might be right about the date on those kitchen cabinets. Honestly, I don’t know when they were put in. The house was built in 1925 and those cabinets were in place when my parents bought the house in 1958, so those metal cabinets could have gone in anytime between then.

    However, you’re right. The kitchen sink does look more post-1930-ish.

  8. Dale Wolicki

    This is more than a matter of good manners.

    The individual that stole Rose’s pictures and text used the material to represent themselves as an authority on the topic of pre-cut homes and has gained benefit from this theft (such as publicity).

    I know myself that Rose has invested significant amounts of time, talent and money researching pre-cut homes.

    On more than one occasion she has encountered situations that threatened her life. All her research was done out of the goodness of her heart and the meager savings of her bank accounts.

    Proceeds from books and lectures provide Rose with the ability to continue her work but will never cover the cost.

    It would have taken but a few emails to obtain permission to use the images and text from Rose and myself, but instead they stole the material and put their name on it.

  9. Sears Homes

    Thanks for understanding, Dale.

    And I know that you’ve got more invested in this “vocation” than I do, and I know that you’ve been doing this *LONGER* than I have.

    And you’re right about the income part, too. As you and I well know, this “career” barely produces enough dollars to pay for itself.

  10. Kris

    I was going to suggest the watermarks, too, it’s sad that it has to come to that. Sorry about your words being stolen, too, Dale. Now I’m looking all over the net for this rascal, does this person know they’ve been caught yet?