This wasn’t one of my better mornings. It started out with an internet outage that has put me many hours behind on the tasks I needed to finish today. It got worse when I received my mail.
Remember how I wrote recently about how copyright laws are wreaking havoc with the ability of authors to illustrate books? Well, it turns out that it’s not just copyright causing the trouble. My publisher sent me a letter (yes, in the mail—directing me to reply by email, no less, so they don’t have to wait for response) informing me that they would not allow me to use almost half of the images I provided for Jason and the Argonauts because the publisher says that having the photographer’s permission to use the photograph is not enough; I need to be able to demonstrate in a court of law that the photographer obtained legal access to the art in order to photograph it.
Obviously, this standard is impossible for me to meet since I have no way of independently verifying the photographer’s permissions; in such case, the publisher wants me to obtain new permissions from the owners of the art. In the most important case, the Douris Cup held in the Vatican, that would be the Pope.
What angers me to no end is that this requirement fades away with age. The publisher has no problem as long as I am paying someone for a photograph, even though there is now no way of verifying whether a photograph taken in the 1920s or 1940s had the owner’s permission. But if something comes from a photo archive, it magically needs no more documentation, even though the fine print quite clearly states that rights assessment is the responsibility of the user, not the archive. And, of course, once we cross back past the magic year of 1923, suddenly it doesn’t matter how a photograph was obtained or who owned the object depicted therein.
In other words, the standard is: Who can try to make money off this? The answer, of course, is never me.
So, today I have the lovely choice of trying to get the Pope to agree to let me use a picture of a piece of art that has been in the public domain for nearly 3,000 years and published for centuries, or I can redraw the images myself. Guess which is faster.
I obtained a drawing of the Douris Cup from a 1919 edition of a religious journal, but it’s too faded to print, so I have to retrace it in darker ink. Once I do, I think I’ll post a high-resolution scan online so no one else has to go through this stupid situation again. Needless to say, I need to devote most of today to tracing out the Douris Cup, so I am unfortunately pressed for time and don’t really have anything new for the blog today.
Among other problems, the publisher also is uncomfortable using images from the Library of Congress or the National Gallery of Art, which are both out of copyright, owned by the U.S. government, and provided with documentation stating that they have no restrictions on commercial use, because—and get this—they did not click the links to the permission and rights documentation I provided and instead want me to type it out for them and email it to them. Similarly, they refuse to accept the Beinecke Library at Yale University’s blanket grant of permission to use their work, and they want Yale University to verify permission.
None of this was a problem with my last few books, but somehow this one is cursed. It’s been one problem after another—and all related to art. My cartographer also missed the deadline, so I had to learn how to draw maps, too.
I’ve also started wondering if the people who post negative comments on my blog aren’t coordinating their message. It seems to me to be a bit beyond coincidence that I’ve received something like a dozen comments and emails, putatively from independent sources, all making the same claim: that I am too arrogant and need to be “humble” in criticizing alternative historians because only gentle, humble messages correctly express the tentative nature of scientific knowledge. I have heard from one person who asserts that it is “arrogant” to state a conclusion without qualifiers, from another that an honest critic should point out all of the things Ancient Aliens gets right, and yet another that the truly humble observer would respect all points of view equally, for we can never know the truth. And on it goes.
What befuddles me is that these standards apply only to critics of alternative history; its proponents can make absolute statements (“History as we know it is wrong!” “It can only be extraterrestrials!”), yet this is “open minded.” Obviously, I can’t expect random blog comments to have logical consistency, but I think it represents the type of self-centered thinking that is only too prominent in the alternative history community: What I believe is truth; what you believe is dogma. My opinion is fair; opinion is fair; your opinion is close-minded.
And lest you think that the alternative history defenders are correct in claiming that these shows are just entertainment that have no effect on anyone, let me share two emails I received this week. The first is from a man who claims that he had been plagued be visitations from extraterrestrial beings and UFOs, which he finally recognized were demons after accepting Jesus Christ earlier this year. Now, he says, the aliens shift from extraterrestrial to demonic beings and can be dispelled with prayer (as in the Exorcist). They always come, he says, when he is very tired and just about to fall asleep—quite obviously the type of waking dreams well known in the ufological literature, though this time with a Christian cast. Absent the nightmare imagery provided by pop culture views of aliens (or demons), would this still occur?
The second was an inquiry I received from a high school student who, like the others described above, was concerned that I am too negative and am not “fairly” crediting “both sides” of the ancient astronaut question. The student learned, he said, about ancient astronauts from cable television programs and wanted my opinion on several issues, mostly related to why I do not (a) discuss the best evidence aliens really influenced ancient cultures, (b) acknowledge that I am biased against aliens, and (c) explain how I can believe everything evolves toward humanlike civilization without alien help. The answers of course are that (a) there is no evidence of alien involvement, (b) there is, again, no evidence of aliens to be biased against, and (c) evolution is random, not teleological, so I don’t believe there is any predetermined final species or system we are striving toward.
We see, though, in these very different ways how the pernicious idea—born of postmodernism and creationism’s political tactics—that scientific evidence is negotiable manifests as pseudo-creationist ideas about teleology, intelligent design, and alien-demonic involvement.
Oh, well… back to drawing.
UPDATE: Here's a low-resolution version of my drawing. I still have some cleaning to do on the scan, but it seems to have come out well.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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