Sarah McGill Russwurm and the Public Domain

Mrs Sarah McGill Russwurm ~ Public Domain Portrait

This photograph is a piece of history that needs to be shared, which is why I am happy to have completed this restoration during Black History Month (just).

I was inspired to undertake the digital restoration work when I saw a copy of this daguerreotype reproduced online stamped “copyright” — even though it is clearly in the public domain.   While the publishers of Envisioning Emancipation  are within their rights to copyright their publication, they should not claim copyright on individual photographs from the public domain.  Since the copyright notice is only present on the images reproduced in the online version of The Daily Mail, I am inclined to think the British tabloid added the copyright notice in a misguided attempt to “protect” the book.

Either way, it is bad enough that an important historic woman like Sarah McGill Russwurm has nearly been lost in the mists of history, without compounding the error by locking the only extant image of her behind copyright.

This photograph of Sarah Russwurm is based on the daguerreotype portrait by Augustus Washington, African American Daguerreotypist circa 1854, of an Unidentified woman, probably a member of the Urias McGill family, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, holding daguerreotype case.

The original is held in the American Library of Congress which has made two photographic copies easily accessible in its online digital holdings. The black and white photograph (marked “1947”)  is in very good shape, unlike the colour photograph, which shows marked deterioration. There are numbers at the top of the colour print which seem to indicate it was made in 1965.  Ironically, the version of the photograph reproduced in Envisioning Emancipation was a a black and white rendering of the extensively damaged colour print.   Careful examination of the partner daguerreotype, of Sarah’s younger brother, Urias McGill, show signs of having been tinted, so it is reasonable to suppose that the original daguerreotype of Sarah may have been tinted as well.  If so, it might be worthwhile for the Library of Congress to take new colour photographs from the original daguerreotypes.

To create the image pictured here above I combined the the colour photograph’s frame with the black and white photo to create this digitally restored colour photograph of the framed daguerreotype. The Library of Congress notes that there are “No known restrictions on publication,” which confirms the original image is in the public domain. Even with the absurd copyright terms we are seeing these days, it is still reasonable to expect a daguerreotype taken in the 19th Century ought to be in the Public Domain by the 21st.

Whether or not this image actually is Sarah Russwurm, it is a historic record in the public domain that anyone should be able to use.   Because I consider my digital work to be a restoration, so this work is also in the Public Domain, which means The Temple University Press is welcome to use my digital restoration in future reprints of the book.   Anyone can click on my restoration above to download a large size, or you can purchase high quality photographic reprints of the original from the Library of Congress here.

Image Credits:

The original daguerrotype made by Augustus Washington is housed in the Library of Congress.  I have also published this photograph, along with what I know of Sarah Russwurm on my Russwurm Ancestry geneology blog.

Public Domain Mark
This work is identified as a Public Domain work free of known copyright restrictions.

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