Friday 20 July 2018

The Quandary of Public Domain Photos by Mercedes Rochelle #amwriting #HistoricalFiction @authorrochelle

The Quandary of Public Domain Photos
By Mercedes Rochelle

I could just about guarantee that I'm not the only underpaid indie author who has wondered about using a public domain photo on the cover of their new novel. Well, I finally decided to push this question to its logical conclusion, and I thought I'd share the process with you. I am not a lawyer, so don't take me at my word! But I have at least one experience to pass on.

For me, the picture in question was from a manuscript in the British Library. The image is all over the Internet and, most importantly, on Wikipedia, a kind of the clearinghouse for public domain images, as I see it. For the record, Wikipedia tells us "the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less." Since I am using a manuscript illumination, that's not a problem. I knew I could use these pictures on the Internet: a blog post, social media, and my webpage. But when it comes to something like a book, I knew somehow that the rules were different. First of all, copyright laws tend to cover the country of origin. Even if I could use it in the United States, what about Europe? I wouldn't (or couldn't) limit my distribution to just one country.

So I went to the British Library site ( where you can purchase a license. That was the easy part. Below the image you can click on an icon to determine the price. First they ask you a question: is this for personal use, advertising, editorial, or products? For personal use, the price is £7.50, for advertising the price is £691.20. I'm already confused, because if I take the image from Wikipedia for my personal use, it doesn't cost anything.

Which category does my book cover fall into? I'm not a publisher or a business, so my book is being published personally. Isn't it? What is the definition of advertising? Do they mean a picture on a coffee cup or a magazine advertisement, or something of that ilk? Is a book cover considered advertising? When I checked out the Terms and Conditions, it tells us, "Reproduction (allowed): includes any form of publication or copying of the whole or part of any Image whether altered or not, and derived from any Image whether by printing, photography, slide projection, xerography, artists' reference, artists' illustration, layout or presentation, electronic or mechanical reproduction or storage by any other means." OK, my book is covered by "any form of publication", I suppose.

So, taking this as permission, I paid my £7.50 and proceeded to fret about it for a couple of days. Finally, just to be sure, I sent an email to the support people and gave them a working copy of my cover with an explanation. They were very responsive. The next day I received an answer, telling me, "The licence you have purchased is only for personal use.  Please let us know the print run and language territory rights required for your book. For front cover use the fee is much higher but we would deduct or refund the fee you have paid." Well, that was that. Expecting the worst, I explained to them that my book was Print on Demand and I had no way of knowing how many were going to sell; it could be 10, or 100, or 500. I was already prepared to scrap the whole idea, having resigned myself to the worst. Imagine my surprise the next day to hear from them again: "The permission fee will be an additional £46.45." That's a far cry from £691 and change! Needless to say, I jumped on it (and printed a copy of the email for my records). And now I am the happy licensee of a public domain image that assuredly was inaccessible before the days of the Internet.

I have absolutely no idea how they arrived at a price. What I did learn is that in this new world, it behoves us not to assume anything. Had I not written that letter, I might have gotten myself into a lot of trouble. On the other hand, my image of choice was not out of reach after all.

A King Under Siege:
  Part 1 of The Plantagenet Legacy

Richard II’s reign was difficult from the start. Crowned king at age ten, he was only fourteen when the Peasants’ Revolt terrorized London. But he proved himself every bit the Plantagenet successor, facing Wat Tyler and the rebels when all seemed lost. Alas, his triumph was short-lived, and for the next ten years he struggled to assert himself against his uncles and increasingly hostile nobles. Just like in the days of his great-grandfather Edward II, vengeful magnates strove to separate him from his friends and advisors and even threatened to depose him if he refused to do their bidding. The Lords Appellant, as they came to be known, launched a devastating campaign against Richard’s supporters, bending Parliament to their will and removing everyone he depended on except for his queen. The unimportant ones were dismissed; the scapegoats fled the country to permanent exile. And the brave ones who remained were eliminated by judicial murder. The king's wishes were disregarded and the victors reduced Richard II to a figurehead. But not for long. The Merciless Parliament marked the end of Richard’s youth and changed his viewpoint forever. He would never forget his humiliation at the hands of his persecutors.

Coming soon…


Ten thousand or more crowded the banks of the Thames near the king's manor of Rotherhithe, shrieking and howling like the demons of hell. The royal barge, hung with the Plantagenet lions, floated safely in the middle of the river, while King Richard gripped his sword hilt, trying to emulate his forefathers. Tall for his age, of delicate features and red hair, the fourteen year-old monarch looked every bit the Plantagenet successor—though right now he felt more frightened than brave.

He waited for them to quiet down. "Why are you here and what do you want?"

The young voice, clear and shrill, reached its listeners who broke out once again into a clamor, shaking their farm tools and rusty old swords.

"Come to the shore!" they demanded. "Speak with us in person!"

Standing under a large red canopy among the few supporters brave enough to accompany him, Richard glanced upriver at the four smaller barges loaded with courtiers. The boats had hung back, not daring to come any closer. This was a sorry plight they had gotten themselves into!

Sighing, Richard turned to Archbishop Sudbury. He could see the terror in the prelate's face.
"I promised I would speak with them," the king said uncertainly. "I must at least try."

Bristling under two great banners with St. George's cross and forty pennons, the mob continued its uproar while the king turned to his other advisors. Sir Robert Hales, England's treasurer, stepped up beside the Archbishop.

"We cannot expect any mercy from them. They are out for blood." His eyes were almost bulging from his head.

Richard then turned to the earl of Salisbury, the most experienced soldier on the barge. "And what is your advice?" he asked, trying to keep a brave face.

"You cannot go ashore. They might restrain you—hold you hostage, or worse. This is an undisciplined rabble."

Biting his lip, Richard turned back to the crowd. "What is it you want from me?" he shouted. "Tell me, now that I have come this far."

He stood, arms crossed, while the men closest to the river conferred with each other. Finally, coming to a decision, the apparent leader got into a boat with a couple of rowers. They brought their craft as close as they dared. "Here is what we want," the man called. "We demand the heads of John of Gaunt, Archbishop Sudbury, Treasurer Hales, Sir John Fordame Clerk of the Privy Seal, Chief Justice Robert Belknap, Ranulf Ferrers, Robert Plesington Baron of the Exchecker, John Legge and Thomas Brampton."

"Why, you seek to deprive me of my chief ministers," Richard cried while Sudbury called down God's curses on their heads.

"We seek to save you from corrupt officials," the rebel shouted back.

"This is too dangerous," Salisbury spoke in Richard's ear. "We must leave this rabble."

Nodding in agreement, the king tried one last time. "If you wish to continue negotiations," he called, less sure of himself, "you may do so at Windsor on Monday next." While he was speaking, the barge was already turning around. Stunned at losing their advantage, the crowd howled in anger and the rebel boat fell back in confusion. But Richard no longer cared. He was headed for the safety of the Tower, though for the first few minutes they were at the mercy of any archer who might choose to draw his bow. But nothing happened aside from the shouts of "Treason! Treason!" that diminished as they gained speed. The king stared at the receding mob, biting his lip, until they were out of range. No one had turned his arrow against the royal barge. Perhaps there was some discipline left after all.

Mercedes Rochelle
Born in St. Louis MO with a degree from University of Missouri, Mercedes Rochelle learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. She lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.

Mercedes loves to hear from readers. You can find her… WebsiteBlog Facebook Twitter


  1. Thanks for relating your experience with the cover picture. Most helpful.

  2. Yes, thank you for that. The cover is wonderful and worth every penny. I'm so glad you asked.

  3. 1/30/2020: Supplemental. This month, I was ready to order another image for the next book in my series. I had chosen a picture from the same manuscript, also from British Library. Alas, something had changed along the way. My contact was gone and the lead time was longer. The new accreditation goes to “The British Library Board”. And most importantly, the price had changed. This time, I told them I anticipated selling less than 500 copies. They responded a week later with a fee of £150 plus £30 VAT. This works out to about $235.72. That’s a far cry from last time! Needless to say, I was afraid to argue. It still falls way short of the feared advertising fee, and I can live with it.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx