Indianapolis Colt’s Owner Jim Irsay Doesn’t Want to Share Jack Kerouac’s Classic On the Road Manuscript

Jack Kerouac On the Road Manuscript Display at the San Francisco Public Library -- a Forbidden Photograph
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road Manuscript on Display at the San Francisco Public Library — a Forbidden Photograph

Pinned to Jack Kerouac’s wall to inspire his writing: “Art is the highest task and the proper metaphysical activity of this life.”
–Nietzsche

In 2001 Indianapolis Colt’s owner Jim Irsay purchased the bible of the beat generation, a 120 foot scroll copy of Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript of On the Road. It is currently on display here in San Francisco in our main Public Library.

On the Road is perhaps the most inspirational of all beat literature — it is a classic stream of consciousness, mostly autobiographical tale from seminal beat writer Jack Kerouac. The book is rumored to have been written in a Benzedrine and caffeine induced three week frenzy and, as the physical manuscript supports, was written on a single page from a giant roll of paper. And what better place now to show the manuscript than San Francisco, a city that was central to the entire beat movement.

Although Jack was a great writer, he was also a talented visual artist. According to the book Departed Angels, which presents his paintings and drawings, Kerouac on a number of occasions told friends he would have been a painter if he had not been a writer. “His enthusiasm for art was omnivorous, he drew, he painted, he designed covers for his books, and as he sketched with words, so he sketched with images: organized and deliberate but spontaneous.

So the irony of Jack’s great life as an artist, both as a visual artist and a writer, is that with his great manuscript now on display at the San Francisco *PUBLIC* library you cannot as a photographer and artist take photos of it. I went by the library yesterday excited to view this great manuscript by a hero of mine and excited about using my EF100 macro lens to document this great work and give it my own artistic interpretation, only to be told by the security guard at the library that I was not allowed to photograph the manuscript.

Jack Kerouac On the Road Manuscript Display at the San Francisco Public Library
Jack Kerouac’s classic manuscript of “On the Road”

The current owner of the manuscript Jim Irsay, when he purchased the manuscript initially, said that he did not want the scroll locked away as it had been for many years previous. He said that it “belonged to the people.” And yet ironically enough a manuscript in a *public* library that belongs to the public cannot be photographed by his edict. This runs contrary to what Jack would have been about as an artist, runs contrary to the idea of a public library being a place where the public can explore and create art and is disappointing.

When the manuscript was initially put up for sale by Christie’s back in 2001 an article on the scroll of Jack Kerouac by James Eimont cited Christie’s similar objections to the scroll being photographed then citing “copyright issues” and “flash damage.” “One of the gentlemen working at Christie’s was very kind in answering some of my questions. “No, you can’t take a picture of the scroll (copyrights and they don’t want the camera flash to wear out the ink on the paper).”

These types of objections are red herrings. It would be easy enough for the library to prohibit flash photography, while allowing non flash photography. Further, given the size of the document, it would be nearly impossible to photograph the entire thing. At best snippets could be shot with macro lens which might provide a minor passage (something perfectly acceptable to do under copyright law as a quote). A photograph of the entire document would not be legible.

It is a shame that after making my trek to the library I was unable to use my macro lens and shoot this great document. There is so much artistic value to examining close up how the work was created — the pencil edits, the stream of consciousness typing, the age of the important work.

I would have hoped that in a desire to truly return this great document to the “public” that Irsay would not have placed this irrational prohibition on this document. While it is possible for people to come see the scroll when it is on display in major cities to be viewed, there are many people who live in places who will never be able to see the scroll. Letting those people in through the lens of a camera and the eye of an artist would have been ok by Jack and would be something enriching for all people for who Mr. Irsay claims the document now belongs.

I did express my disappointment in the message book that accompanies this great work and hope that Mr. Irsay might reconsider and allow artists to document this great work using non flash photography in the future.

Comment Book from Jack Kerouac's On the Road Manuscript Display at the San Francisco Public Library

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16 Comments

  1. shhexycorin says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about the no photography issue…. but I would rape my mother to see that manuscript.

    Do you know if it’s coming to the UK?

    (send me an email or flickrmail if you know, please thomas!)

  2. Carl says:

    Last time I went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, there were several “no flash photography” signs on the darkened octopus tank. In the three or four minutes I stood there, I’d say there were at least a dozen photos taken using flash. The problem is that you can say “no *flash* photography” all you want and people will use flash anyway. Half the people don’t care, and the other half don’t know how to use their cameras well enough to turn the flash off.

    I wonder if this is a copyright issue or whether it’s a case of conscientious people being punished for the actions of idiots.

  3. Thomas Hawk says:

    Carl, perhaps this is the case, but it is still not fair to punish innocent artists and photographers. The library could easily allow people the opportunity to discuss the issue with someone there before granting permission and have that person personally stress the importance of this with the photographer.

    Heck, my camera (Canon EOS 5D) does not even have a built in flash. I couldn’t use a flash if I tried. It’s not fair that I be prevented from shooting this historic document. This hurts no one and makes the document much more accessible to a much wider audience online. If the document, truly does belong “to the people” as owner Jim Irsay says and if it is in a “public” library, and I can demonstrate that my camera does not even have a flash, I should be able to shoot it. It’s a small price to pay to be able to share this historic document.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Such a fab lens and camera, but you really need to set an appropriate white balance.

  5. Myra Borshoff Cook says:

    My name is Myra Borshoff Cook and I have organized the tour of the Kerouac Scroll for Jim Irsay. Although Mr. Irsay owns the manuscript, he does not hold the copyright to On The Road. Therefore, we had to work with the lawyers representing the holders of the copyright and that is why the photography policy was set — for copyright protection.

  6. seenyarita says:

    Thomas, I was also at this exhibit and I felt i needed to respect the “no photography” rule for several reasons. I believe in the laws of copyright, especially for artists. I was respecting the wishes of the people who kindly allowed me to view this exhibit. Permission to see it doesn’t give me the right to photograph it. I enjoyed this experience and I didn’t feel cheated by being unable to photograph. The Kerouac of the Beat Generation might have seen the concept of “sharing” his work differently in this age of an internet where one’s privacy and rights are constantly being threatened and usurped. I don’t understand why you arrogantly feel that preventing you from photographing this exhibit is depriving you of something that is due you. I could have snuck several photos while i was there to blog about it or show others or as a souvenir but this would make me a sneak. If it mattered so much to you you could have gone through proper channels to get permission beforehand. How would you feel about people taking photos of your work and doing what they wanted with them? I respect your opinions but I think you’re being a bit of a bully here.

  7. Thomas Hawk says:

    Rita, copyright laws have to do with when you republish someone elses work when it falls beyond the scope of fair use. To quote a passage in a book for instance is generally regarding as fair use and would not be deemed a copyright violation. You could for instance write an article reviewing On The Road and quote from the book without violating copyright laws.

    The copyright argument is a red herring with respect to the “On the Road” exhibit. As you can atest from seeing the display it would be difficult to photograph much of the text (the paper and scroll by the way cannot be copyrighted). At best I was able to get some macro shots that were not even complete sentences that would definitely fall within the scope of fair use.

    To quote or photograph the scroll does not violate copyright law in any way shape or form.

    The bigger issue here is not whether or not you or I get to experience the scroll (we are fortunate enough to live in a major metropolitan area where it is on display) but what about the people who will never get to see it?

    If you can take photos of the scroll and not violate copyright (and it would be very difficult to violate copyright given how it is displayed) then why not share it with them.

    To further examine the copyright issue, lets look at who owns it. So Jack dies and his third wife Stella inheirts the scroll and copyright, ok fair enough. Now Stella dies and her brother John gets the copyright and scroll. Okay, still, I guess, then Bob dies and his son Tony then gets the scroll and I assume the copyright. And of course Tony locks the scroll up where it can’t be seen until Irsay buys it from him at auction for $2.2 million (it’s nice to know that everybody has their price).

    Now I’m not sure if Tony Sampas still owns the rights to “On The Road” or not, but if you are asking me do I want to honor someone’s attmept to prevent me from fair use photographing a copyrighted document when he made over $2.2 million from selling an important historical scroll that nobody ever got to see when he was the third person to inheirt it and it’s current owner says it belongs to the people, well I’ll choose with my right to fair use photograph the document.

    Note that I did not break copyright law by shooting the scroll. I broke the library’s rule and I broke the tour coordinator’s rule, but I broke no laws. It is our duty to challenge rules while staying within the law (which I did) when they are based on unethical precepts.

    The scroll deserves to be seen by those outside of San Francisco and I’m happy that I took photos of it to share.

    By the way in terms of my photos, they are all creative commons licensed and can be used for anyone who wants for any reason as long as they don’t profit from them. I wish the same could be said for an important work of art handed down through three different inheiritances. Personally I believe that copyright laws need to be changed in this country to allow important works like this to return to the public domain much earlier once the spouse and children or immediate beneficiary are dead.

  8. seenyarita says:

    Thomas,

    Well, i’m not a lawyer. I welcome this discussion because it presents some interesting questions and rights that, as a photographer, i am just starting to understand. I can see how you feel that the copyright issue is a red herring. Perhaps. But I’m sure it could be argued that someone might be able to reproduce portions of the manuscript that don’t fall within the scope of research and study; review and criticism; news reportage and the giving of professional advice (ie legal advice).

    I know you are well-intentioned and see yourself as providing photos of the scroll to those who can’t be there. But I see the request for no photographs to be part of a moral debate about the rights of artists. Too many people don’t see the rights of the artist when they feel they are being prohibited from having access to the sharing of creative works. Many argue that copyright does more to restrict freedom of ideas and information than protect it and that copyright is not a benefit to society since it only enriches a few.

    But I feel that it has to be upheld in situations that pose a threat. Is this one? Maybe not. I’d like to hear more from Ms Boshoff on that point. I believe that you are well-intentioned in wanting to take photographs of the manuscript. But without protection many valuable books and pieces of art would not be created. As for Kerouac’s heirs…extension of copyright terms beyond an artist’s lifespan can contribute to the incentive to create. Apparently, copyright can extend 50 to 70 years beyond the death of the artist.

    As for Kerouac, I remember I was sad to discover, after reading the book, that he was not the same counter-culture hero at the end of his life that he seemed to be in “On the Road”. For most of his life he lived with his mother and his ideas about women and marriage were pretty neanderthal.
    Kerouac spent most of the last years of his life distancing himself from the radical hippies of the 60s and waving the flag. He thought the political anger of those in Haight Ashbury to be destructive.

  9. n says:

    it’s not just about copyright, it’s also a conservation issue. this isn’t just a book in the library, it’s an historic artifact.

  10. Simon says:

    This response from the tour organizer is utter crap.

    You can own a copyright of the text, that is fine. But photographs of the text can not be prevented. There are plenty of photos of the text going around anyway, e.g., by the Associated Press, and the AP didn’t pay anyone anything.

    My guess is that this is copyright-fear gone crazy, and that lawyers for the Kerouac estate scared them stiff.

    As for the people arguing that this is a “rights of the artist” thing, I’ve news: Jack is dead. His work, just as the Jazz music he listened to and that inspired the Beats, deserves to go back to the people.

    Whether or not it’s legal to prevent a photograph because of copyright, I think it’s clear that copyright laws at this point are insane, unjust and implemented solely to benefit large and political powerful entertainment companies — not the artists.

    Thomas, you’re in a bind. The Colts owner can put any conditions he wants on the work’s display, including “no photos”. However, there may be some leeway because it’s displayed in a public place. (For example, I “own” my own likeness, but if I go for a walk, someone can snap a picture of me and print it in a newspaper. Things very instantly get fuzzy after that, though — IANAL, just an occasional photographer, but see below for people WAL.)

    My guess, if you want to be an instant star, is to photograph the work without a flash as much as you like, get arrested or thrown out, and sue. You may want to contact a group like the EFF (Electronic Freedom Foundation) before doing so.

    (The EFF is great; I contacted them once a few years ago, and they responded within a day. It’s worth your while to bring their attention to this abuse.)

    Best of luck to you,

    Simon

  11. robwestcott says:

    Jim Irsay Doesn’t Want to Share Jack Kerouac’s Classic On the Road Manuscript

    what an incredibly silly comment.

    “doesn’t want to share” ? do you have any idea how many people mr. irsay has shared the scroll with worldwide ? that was the purpose of the purchase and the painstaking (and costly) restoration in the first place.

    your whining is unbecoming. name me a major art museum, or gallery for that matter, that allows photography.

    good grief.

    go buy the paperback and plop it on your kitchen table and go to town with your new camera.

    i’m pretty sure that if you own the paperback, you can take as many pics of it as you want. if you want, you can have a party, even invite some friends over and share it with them.

  12. Flounder Lee says:

    “your whining is unbecoming. name me a major art museum, or gallery for that matter, that allows photography.”

    Well the museum of modern art in new york for one. Sort of a holy site for art and they allow it…. Mass MOCA sometimes allows it, I’ve photographed at MOCA in LA also…

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