Christmas, Copyright, Charges and Charitable Endeavours: An Advent Tale


Earlier this year, I mentioned on my professional website that I intended to produce material that might raise charitable funds. Given the current situation, this was going to have to be both something outside my usual format; and something on which I’d already made a start, due to limited access to resources, and the time it takes to complete projects.

I decided that the best option would be to aim to complete the Christmas-themed material I began a few years ago (more on which below), and have tinkered with it off-and-on since. But (as numerous problems have beset progress this year), I was only in the position to clarify that this could be a viable, marketable, product, quite recently. (First having to overcome technical problems – perhaps inevitable when trying to use a PC that’s not quite up to spec.; then access and teach myself to use new software – and recognise the potentials this affords; and effectively employ this in developing novel resources.) So it was only a few weeks ago that I reached the stage that I might seek ‘official approval’, and (pending the relevant permissions) seek prospective clients (also bearing in mind that working samples are often required to describe new concepts).

However, with completed work (incorporating illustrations that I’ve made, from my own photos), I’m unable to market these products in time for Christmas, due to copyright-related, and other licencing issues. This post relates some of the experiences of creative processes, and barriers thereto, which I hope may be of use to others considering the development of educational resources and artistic material.

Digital Discoveries and Christmas Customs

Christmas Customs

I began writing a socio-cultural history on Christmas in Derbyshire during the 1500s – early 1800s several years ago, initially to consolidate research and ideas in preparation to provide ‘Antiquarian Academy‘ talks on the subject, at this time (due to a focus on the Regency era, to commemorate the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death).

Bearing in mind my academic background (and as a member of the History of Archaeology Research Network), as well as long studying the significance of ‘the past in the past’, particularly with regard to social and cultural identity (a central theme of my doctoral research), my ‘angle’ in this work was (and to some extent remains) an exploration of antiquarian interest in Christmas; how such works may have influenced wider culture; and how this related (and still relates) to notions of ‘Englishness’. As an archaeologist (a profession for which context is at the heart of both data collation and recording, and analysis), I examined and provided background detail.

Though I’ve not had much time to return to this work since I completed the first draft of this late Georgian section, three years ago; I have revisited it a few times, to incorporate additional findings, as my research proceeds; and to tweak content and ideas in other ways. In seeking material to draw upon this year, I thought it might be interesting to use some of this work; but (bearing in mind current Coronavirus risks and restrictions), I’d have to present this in a different way to my usual site-based educational events.

Digital Discoveries

Some form of remote learning seemed in order; and, as I’ve both completed interactive digital resources before (and have another, more substantial, project nearing completion – more on which, another time); and several years ago, began experimenting with creating a Christmas-themed product along these lines. This seemed the best fit for a 2020 production.

In first exploring what might be achieved (in 2016?), I needed seasonal illustrations to work with, that might front the historical material; and dipped into my collection of photos taken for personal use, to try-out these ideas. Those taken at one of my favourite places: Allestree Park, located on the outskirts of Derby in the East Midlands, seemed suitable bases from which to create digital illustrations.

As much of my research focuses around the household and home, I used images of the mansion – known locally as Allestree Hall – built in the park during the early years of the 1800s; and occupied in the late Georgian era by the industrialist Evans family: mill-owners in nearby Darley Abbey. From my photos, I made digital watercolour illustrations.

These took a great deal of time, over several years, as in every image I had (and every time I visited – preventing me from usefully taking better photos), there were either people loitering around the building; parked cars; or both. I’ve therefore had to do quite a bit of reconstructive Photoshopping (also removing modern signage, and other unsightly features), to create a suitable illustration. I completed the image last year; this year, I added snow, for a seasonal touch.

My initial plan was to make the content accessible as an Advent calendar, whereby clicking on a window would reveal an illustration (where possible from, or at least of, late Georgian customs ‘in action’), with further clicks producing brief descriptions / discussions of the associated tradition (as compiled in my ‘Christmas Book’). This required me to source and edit appropriate images from the public domain. I spent many days (probably weeks) sifting through online archives suppling copyright-free illustrations, and books containing illustrations, and gathered a cache of potential material.

Copyright Checks

Along the way, I investigated the ins-and-outs of copyright restrictions regarding prospective use of these images, to try to ensure that I didn’t stumble in this veritable minefield. I believed that this would be the main concern with regard to creating and marketing artwork / educational resources, but unfortunately this proved not to be the case.

I began to quite like how it was turning out: the artwork was certainly not great, but it served a purpose. So, I also put my hand to making a couple of illustrations of historic buildings (from my own photos) that would work well in creating something similar for Tudor and Restoration Christmas, which (being easier to complete, having no obstacles to Photoshop out) I completed more quickly than the Allestree images (finishing these in mid-November).

At this point, being in a position to show samples of these illustrations of historically earlier buildings, I could approach the organisation that owned the properties, regarding prospective image use. I had taken the photos from which I made the illustrations with the permission of the site manager, who stated that display in the public domain was allowed (at the time, I asked if it would be OK if I put them on my blogs, and use them for education). But as now income generation would be involved, I thought I’d better check if it was OK to use them in the ways I had planned.

In answer to my question of whether I might use my illustrations, created from my photos, to raise funds for a local charity that supports rough sleepers and other vulnerable people, providing food, toiletries and sleeping bags; and for educational purposes (prospectively delivered on behalf of the organisation, to draw visitors); I received a resounding ‘no’ in response (albeit politely).

This was a bit of a blow, from which I’m still reeling a little. I was not only made aware that I’d be unable to market the Christmas products; but also, that I wouldn’t be able to incorporate images of the sites I’ve been researching, either in educational sessions, or academic publications.

(At this point, I should perhaps make clear that academic journals do not generally remunerate authors for their work; on the contrary, publishers frequently – and increasingly – charge authors several hundred pounds. While university-employed lecturers have access to grants – as publication is an obligation, as one of the means by which quality is measured – this fee is often a substantial barrier for independent researchers, for whom grants are like gold dust; and I certainly cannot afford this cost myself.)

I then looked into the experiences of others, and read that I might possibly be granted a license (though I’d been informed that due to staff shortages, these were not being administered at present); but that a license might cost around £400 (for a single use of each image). And that attempts to publish without a licence (even for personal use on sites such as Flickr) were liable to end in court – the organisation apparently being particularly litigious, and allegedly (as one commentator claimed) using its volunteers to trawl internet for contraventions.

Consequently, I’ve had to abandon this version of the product (and it’s looking like I’ll be unable to offer educational events for this organisation, and may have to discontinue my research on this or any other of their properties).

In a despondent mood, I contacted the landowner (local authority) regarding permission to use my illustrations of Allestree (though I still had a few finishing touches to complete). Almost immediately I received a friendly and helpful response from a member of the relevant department (which I have to say, significantly lifted my spirits: thank you for this glimmer of light in the darkness, if you happen to be reading!), who indicated that my request would have to be considered by the rest of the team, to whom my message was forwarded.

In the meantime, I pressed on (in retrospect, perhaps somewhat over-optimistically); and December 1 came and went. I therefore had to convert the product to its present form: essentially, an interactive calendar, without numbered windows and door, with the additional option to browse topics, as well as clicking on windows to see what lies beneath. I’m calling this an ‘Interactive Christmas Customs Compendium’ (for the present, at least). I’ve also used another of my photos of the same building to create an illustration, which I’ve arranged as a self-print Christmas card.

Despite numerous problems with my PC, health issues, and other difficulties, I finished my ‘ICCC’, and was satisfied enough with the results – which makes the situation all the more frustrating.

Happy Christmas?

I’d just put down the above subheading when my work was interrupted. In the short time it took to attend to a family matter, I’d received a message from the local authority, indicating that I can use my Allestree images: my faith in human nature is restored once more. So, I contacted the charity for whom I had intend to raise funds, to see if they were interested; and set to work adding in the relevant information to the webpage I’ve created that provides samples and other details – for anyone interested, that’s here. Then and I contacted a few local interest groups, to ask if they’d mention these products on their webpage.

It’s now the following morning, and I’ve heard back from the charity, and can now state that any funds raised will go to Doorways (any support of this organisation – who provide foodbanks and support rough sleepers and other vulnerable people – would be most welcome).

I’ve not yet heard back from one of the local groups; another indicates that they don’t normally allow advertising on their sites; and another has given me the go ahead to promote the products on their site.

(The short) time (left for the Christmas market) will tell whether this was a worthwhile exercise. The work involved in creating these products (and the time taken to check for copyright etc.) probably amounts to over two months (perhaps many more, spread over the years) of long (and often very stressful) hours (the numerous technical issues, as well as what seems an ungenerous spirit of some).

I’ve generally carried out this work while I’m not up to much else than digital work at home (in fits-and-starts, between prolonged bouts of illness that pretty much put a stop to any organised activity). And (due to these health issues) I currently have no income from which I could have instead made a donation. But (as the situation currently stands), I doubt that the charity will benefit in any significant way from my endeavours.

Yet, maybe something good will have come from this – if only to raise awareness of the charity that’s doing sterling work in helping those in dire need: Doorways. Especially at (in the immortal words of Dickens) ‘a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices’.

If anyone is interested on these products, information is available here.


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