An Open Letter to Myra Borshoff Cook, Tour Organizer for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road Manuscript Scroll
Dear Ms. Borshoff Cook:
Recently I wrote an article expressing my displeasure over not being able to photograph Jack Kerouac’s classic manuscript “On the Road,” currently on display at the San Francisco Public (sic) Library. The current owner of the document, Indianapolis Colt’s owner Jim Irsay, has publicly stated his opinion that the scroll “belongs to the people.” Still, irrespective of this “belongs to the people” assertion, you, as the organizer of the current tour of the scroll, apparently have decided not to allow photography of the document.
You have responded to my original article claiming that although Mr. Irsay owns the manuscript, he does not own the “copyright” to On The Road. This argument is hollow and does not ring true and well wouldn’t Jack be proud. You go on to say that “therefore,” you “had to work with the lawyers representing the holders of the copyright and that is why the photography policy was set.” That’s good information to consider, as I’m sure Jack would have been sure to consult with the attorneys of the railroad cars that he would hop back when he was alive.
Your copyright argument is flawed. I’m not sure how familiar you are with cameras these days, but as a photographer I can assure you that as the scroll is presently displayed, no one would be able to take more than a snippet of text, and only with a macro lens at best. You cannot shoot the words of the scroll clearly underneath the plexi-glass that you have over the document and to shoot through the glass would require sitting a lens on the glass which rests less than a foot from the document itself.
Although you cite “copyright” as your objection I would remind you of the general concept of “fair use,” Nolo Press has a nice write up on it. “Fair use is based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. The fair use privilege is perhaps the most significant limitation on a copyright owner’s exclusive rights.” Further, taking snippets of text from copyrighted materials and quoting them is in fact fair use.
As you are well aware, it would be difficult if not impossible to copy large portions of the text of this document. Further, someone possessing photographs of the document still in no way reduces the copyright holders rights. The copyright on this document is not on the document itself but on the words contained therin. It would be no different than if I quoted from a paperback version or took a photograph of a paperback version of Jack’s classic text.
So in the spirit of fair use I have decided to disregard your and the San Francisco Public Library’s “no photography” policy and have in fact taken photos of your closely guarded scroll that per Irsay “belongs to the people.” As I’m sure Jack didn’t heed the no jumping rail cars signs I’ll also disregard your “no photography allowed” signs. If, as you suggest, your copyright argument holds I’m sure that I’ll be hearing from your lawyers shortly regarding my illegal use of copyrighted material. That’s what I thought.
Ms. Borshoff Cook, you have been entrusted with running a tour of one of the great pieces of literature of the written English language. Even more significantly *how* it is written is of great historical import. This document deserves to be shared beyond the confines of a small room in a basement of the San Francisco library. This document deserves to be shared with everyone online. They deserve to see the time worn type and corrections that Jack made to his document to get a sense of the historical uniqueness of it. Rather than allow the public an opportunity to share in this experience, you position weak copyright objections which don’t hold up. Are not most books and documents in the San Francisco Public library copyrighted? In fact is not their own copy of the book “On the Road” back in their shelves copyrighted? And yet I see no sign there prohibiting me from taking photos of the actual book, or any other book in the San Francisco Public Library.
Your prohibition against photographing Jack’s great work is more about a misguided sense of intellectual protectionism than anything. It is contrary to Jack’s spirit. It flies in the face of Irsay’s claim that Jack’s document belongs to the people, and it is unfortunate that our own San Francisco Public Library has capitulated to your weak argument for copyright protection and have done the public a disservice in closing off a historic document that should be shared beyond the confines of the current tour.
Oh and San Francisco Public Library, thanks for the free wi-fi, I just shot these shots and now I’m publishing them from your wi-fi connection here on the 5th floor.
cc: Electronic Frontier Foundation