How come Bruce Cockburn stole your front page image?; or, How come you use a Bruce Cockburn CD cover image on your front page?

Hooray for the Public Domain!

Before I answer this question, please look at these pictures of an impromptu Broadway show that took place on the steps of the New York Public Library, the one with the lions, at around 3:00PM, 14 June 2003, and lasted exactly 3 minutes and 19 seconds and featured, to the consternation of the New York Police Department, a big rat and a dancing trash can contraption, along with fireworks, or at least smokeworks.

I came upon this event while on my way into the New York Public Library to pursue my research into former speaker of the House of Representatives and avid anti-imperialist Thomas Bracket Reed, and happened to have my camera on me.

Event on the steps of the New York Public Library, Main Branch (by Bryant Park)

Event on the steps of the New York Public Library, Main Branch (by Bryant Park)

Event on the steps of the New York Public Library, Main Branch (by Bryant Park)

Event on the steps of the New York Public Library, Main Branch (by Bryant Park)

Someone will find those images 100 years from now and, maybe, forgive us some of our worse excesses, for some of us were willing to dress as rats and dance on the steps of the New York Public Library, and some of us were willing to watch.

Now, back to Cockburn.

Canadian singer-songwriter (does anything else ever come after singer? Singer-physicist? Singer-housepainter? Singer-drunk? Does anything else ever come after Canadian [besides “Prime Minister”]?) Bruce Cockburn (don't be immature—the last name is pronounced “Prickinflames”)'s album “You've Never Seen Everything (Charlie Brown)” features, outside of the U.S., a cover with what we call around here “The Ftrain Boy.”

It seems Cockburn is one big deal in Canada, along with other favorite national bands like Throwing Mooses, The Space Moose Experience, Moose Früvöüs, and Beaver Hockey Overdrive. People seem to expect me—little DIY me—to be upset about the cognitive muddiness engendered by Cockburn's album cover, the branding blur of it, and have sent me numerous emails asking how I feel. In my past as a writer for the web, only writing about kittens, fucking, or a combination of the two has produced an equivalent amount of email as that sent from the denizens of our Northern neighbor (tagline: “Canada: the country with a conscience, you warmongering pigs”) regarding this overlap in design stratagems.

Me upset? Why? It is the glory of the public domain (in this case, the edge of page 138 of Heck's Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science, republished from the 1851 edition by Dover Books), that anyone can use materials upon which copyright has expired as they see fit—and a further, perhaps greater glory, given human nature, that no one can stop anyone else from using them, except Disney, which will soon be a fourth branch of government, so I guess it's okay. I don't own the boy; we all own the Ftrain boy, in a folksy, everyone-together-now kind of way. Let's put on fringe buckskin breeches and listen to Rush while growing vegetables.

So: it's extremely unlikely that the designer of Cockburn's CD cover had any idea about the existence of Ftrain and the 4-year continued daily use of the boy's face as its cover image. But even if he or she did know, who cares? I have no recourse to be upset. That's why public domain rocks nearly as hard as the Barenaked Ladies, or the CASBY-nominated Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet.

My worries are not about protecting my turf. The Web has nearly infinite turf and the more I give away the happier I feel. Rather, I'm afraid of someone coming in and trying to take something away, to tell me I'm not allowed to do something in a way that I think I should. Because people are evil rapacious cretinous property zombies, and like to control things. That's why I used public domain artwork in the first place, because it could be mine and everyone else's at once.

Now that Ftrain has two dozen readers instead of just the 10 it had for its first 5 years, the boy's face has become associated with the site in the minds of many people, some of them Canadians. But I don't own it, and one day I might also decide to get rid of it. When it comes to this site, I am as flighty as a penguin with a travel voucher. In the meantime, the boy's face is mine, and Bruce Cockburn's, and yours, too.

In fact, if you'd like a big version of the Ftrain boy with which to make your own CD cover or Web site, feel free to use the 636x678 pixel GIF.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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