Copyright and All That Stuff …

Almost from the start of my project to write the biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey, I have been concerned with the issues around the use of the source material. In the broadest terms, these concerns can be described as:

  • provenance
  • copyright
  • licence

Provenance has concerned me because, although most of the documents have impeccable or compelling provenance, there are a couple of trances where the evidence is less than ideal. In the case of one of these, I am extremely doubtful about the veracity of the material.

Establishing provenance seemed easy. Alongside gathering together the reference material, I ensured that I understood the paper trail. A little like the follow the money mantra of TV crime dramas, I followed the paper. Repositories are extremely helpful in this respect. Many publish the provenance of their holdings in their catalogues. Others will let you have the acquisition history on request. That history may be incomplete but at least there is a clear understanding of the provenance (or lack of it) for each document. I simply need to decide what to do about any inadequacies.

That involved assessing the content of the document and the supporting evidence for this. I have mention previously, in this blog, my satisfaction when evidence from different sources dovetail together . When this happens it strengthens the implicit provenance. Where there is no satisfactory paper trail nor any external supporting evidence, it is much more problematic. The content has to be investigated in more detail by studying the handwriting, the author’s style and the factual information. There are handwriting experts but the services of those qualified to be expert witnesses at law are expensive. Luckily, in the case of Thomas Bowrey, I have studied so much of his handwriting that I can now identify his manuscripts at a glance and, for the most dubious documents, no one is claiming that they are anything but later copies.

Authorial style is more difficult. Stylometry is a set of tools that have been developed to assess the probably authorship of (primarily) works of fiction. It is what has been used when yet another play by Shakespeare has been declared to have been written by someone else. When I tried to apply these tools to the pieces said to have been written by Bowrey, I have found that the material is not suitable nor in sufficient volume to be valid statistically. This does not stop an amateur from looking at similar stylistic attributes and using gut feeling rather than formal stylometric analysis to assess style and drawing qualified conclusions.

The factual information aspect is the easiest for an amateur to consider. For example, no one can be in two places at the same time and, this alone, may be sufficient to cast doubt on a document. Other types of discrepancy may be a little less clear cut but few will require specialist skills.

Copyright and Licence have concerned me because, at the start, I neither knew the difference between the two concepts nor understood the legal and moral issues connected to them.

Obtaining licence to use material is, thankfully, fore straightforward although subject to the interests (often commercial) of the organisation providing access to it. To access or copy documents, it is usually necessary to agree to restrictions on your use of the material. Permission for any other use must be negotiated with the organisation and may involve a fee. In the case of my biography, should I ever be able to sell copies, I hold little expectation of even covering my already considerable expenses. My ability to afford any such fees, rather than my artistic judgement, may affect what I may or may not include in my book.

The issue of Copyright probably scared me the most out of the three. I knew very little about it. Whatever repositories advise about copyright seems to hinder, rather than help, my understanding. So, when the Guild of One-Name Studies included a talk about copyright in an upcoming seminar, I jumped at the opportunity to sign-up. Just as buses always seem to come along in pairs, I learned almost immediately about a half-day copyright workshop to be run by Hull University at the Society for the Arts in London. Again, I signed up immediately.

The workshop came first. It was facilitated by Naomi Korn ( and provided an excellent understanding of the basis of copyright law. The GOONS talk by the Rev. Graham Cornish ( came at the subject from a different angle and filled in most of the gaps in my understanding. Neither  Naomi nor Graham are lawyers so, although their opinions come with the necessary caveats, what they say is as for the layman to understand as such a complex (and illogical) subject can be. I now, at least, feel equipped to tackle the thorny challenge of copyright, if not confident that the issue can be overcome.

Both Naomi and Graham provide copyright consultancy services but they are probably out of the reach of most new authors but I highly recommend that anyone new to writing non-fiction tries to attend one of their sessions. Some of what they present overlaps but it never hurts to have reinforcement.

The main message I have taken away is tha this is not something to be brushed under the carpet, put on the back burner or any other prevaricating cliché. Copyright and licence, like provenance, have to be addressed as early as possible. All affect what you will/can/may write. With my other commitments, completing my East Indies chapters is going to take me until the end of this year so I have an early New Year’s resolution to address by provenance  , licence and copyright issues.

Provenance: In  the spirit of openness, I will complete my analysis of the documents about which I have my doubts and send a copy to the repository holding them. Then I will, at least, understand how I should approach the subject in my book.

Licence: I shall start my negotiations with each repository so that I may understand, as early as possible, what I may not be permitted, or can afford, to use. I shall also consider what I can offer as an alternative to a fee for permission.

Copyright: I shall determine what is in and what is out of copyright using Naomi’s excellent flowchart, make my best endeavours to identify copyright owners, and negotiate with those who I identify. I will document these efforts in case any copyright owners comes forward in the future.

I know from Gill Blanchard’s ( experience that this process will take some considerable time and effort but it would be nice if I could start 2018 with all the issues resolved.


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