Geraldine Moodie and her Pioneering Photographs: A Piece of Canada’s Copyright History

With permission of Glenbow Museum

I particularly wanted to put up this post this week because I think it fits perfectly with the theme of WIPO’s World Intellectual Property Day theme, “Powering Change: Women in Innovation and Creativity”. It is a story of a remarkable woman and one of Canada’s copyright pioneers, someone who has remained in the shadows for too long.

In 1904-05 Geraldine Moodie accompanied her husband Douglas Moodie, an officer in the North West Mounted Police, to a remote outpost on Hudson’s Bay, called Fullerton Harbour. Douglas Moodie had been sent there on a Canadian Government steamship (the Neptune) to establish a police outpost as a Canadian presence in the north. This would have been just another story of a frontier couple except for the fact that Geraldine Moodie is considered to be the first professional female photographer in the Canadian west. She had been married to Douglas since 1878 and had accompanied him to several postings across the prairies and in the process had discovered photography. She established her first photography studio in Battleford, Saskatchewan (then North West Territories) in the 1890s.

Geraldine and Douglas arrived in Fullerton Harbour in September of 1903. As soon as winter set in, the Neptune was frozen in the ice and remained in the harbour until the ice broke up on July 18, 1904 (yes, July—this was before global warming). Unlike stories of ships crushed in the ice, this was pre-planned, with the ship carefully anchored and banked with snow. When the Moodies arrived, the US whaling schooner Era was already in port, also planning to pass the winter there. With winter coming in a few weeks, Moodie and his constables set about constructing the police post and customs house (so he could ensure that duty was paid on imports and exports traded by ships such as the Era). It was a long dark winter, but this gave Geraldine the time to explore the photographic possibilities in the north, both the geography and the people. This became a family endeavour as Douglas had also taken up photography, inspired by his wife. In fact one of Douglas’ mandates was to document the newly established Canadian presence in the north for the benefit of the Canadian Government. Both Geraldine and Douglas were in their early 50s by 1904-05 (they both lived long rich lives, passing away in their 90’s, in 1945 and 1947 respectively), with adult children not with them, thus allowing them plenty of time to document the lifestyle of the Inuit people living in the area.

The photographs they produced in the winters of 1903-04 and 1904-05, some converted to lantern slides, are a remarkable documentary record. The characters of the people photographed immediately engage the viewer. The passage of more than a century is stripped away, and the subjects come to life. This remarkable collection was donated to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, in 2015, by family members and last year was put on display. That is where I saw it and learned about the Moodie’s during a visit to Calgary last year.

While this is all very interesting (to me, at any rate), what does it have to do with copyright? Well, at the end of the gallery at the Glenbow where the photos were displayed sat a glass case containing the original copyright certificates for Geraldine’s works. These certificates, issued by the Canadian Department of Agriculture (Copyright Branch) and dated November 29, 1905 and July 6, 1908 were to register “an album of photographs called Esquimaux Pictures” along with a list of 20 folios of itemized photographs of Inuit men, women and children. Probably the most famous is the one at the top of this blog, a photograph of “KooTuckTuck”, a “deaf and dumb Inuit girl”. This photograph of this beautiful woman, wearing her traditional costume, was featured on a Canadian postage stamp in 2013.

Geraldine’s certificate reminds us of some interesting history with regard to the protection of copyright in Canada. Canada did not have its own Copyright Act until 1924, although there was some earlier legislation that had limited effect. Several attempts had been made to pass legislation in the 1890s but each time it was vetoed by the British authorities, (the Governor-General) who still had final approval over Canadian legislation at that time. Why was the legislation blocked? Canada, semi-autonomous but not fully independent, became the indirect victim of a copyright dispute between Great Britain and the US.

In the 1890s, copyright law was still evolving and there were disputes between British and US publishers. Until Britain and the US reached an agreement in 1891 to respect each other’s copyrights, many US publishers used to print copies of books first published in Britain but without payment of royalties, selling them at a discounted rate. Britain, in turn, blocked the import of such books into the UK—and into other parts of what was then the British Empire, including Canada. However, many booksellers in Canada wanted access to the cheaper US reprints for resale in Canada. This led to a stalemate between competing interests, with the Imperial government siding with the British publishers and blocking any changes to Canadian copyright legislation. (US publishers weren’t the only ones taking advantage of what was then a strictly territorial application of copyright protection. A number of Canadian publishers published the works of Mark Twain without payment of royalties, prompting him to take up temporary residence in Montreal around the time his books were released in the US so as to gain the benefit of British copyright protection).

This history means that the copyright law in force in Canada at the time Geraldine Moodie took her photos and registered them was the Imperial Copyright Act, dating back to 1842, along with further legislation introduced at the time of the signing of the Berne Convention in 1886, the treaty which established the first international copyright regime. Canada, by virtue of being part of the British Empire, became an acceding state to Berne, although it had been given the option by the British of opting out.

Under the rules established by the Berne Convention it was no longer compulsory to register a work in order to get copyright protection, but there was still an option to do so, a choice that exists today in Canada and many countries. During that period any materials registered by the Canadian Copyright Branch had to be provided in three copies, one for the Copyright Branch, one for the Canadian Parliamentary Library, and one for the British Museum, which explains why many early Canadian photographs, including Geraldine’s KooTuckTuck portrait are in the British Museum collection.

When I saw Geraldine’s certificates, I was curious to find out why the Department of Agriculture was responsible for copyright registration. It seems that back in those early days of the post-Confederation Government of Canada, there were not many government departments and Agriculture became a kind of catch-all. In addition to its primary responsibilities in the field of agriculture, the Department was responsible for arts and manufactures, archives, immigration, quarantine and public health, the census and statistics in addition to patents, copyright, trademarks and industrial designs. That is quite a portfolio!

It is a testament to Geraldine Moodie’s professionalism that, over a century ago, she went to the considerable trouble and effort required to register the copyright on her photographs, submitting 3 mounted copies to the Registrar in Ottawa from her remote outpost. That professionalism is further borne out by the timeless quality of her work. Copyright in Canada was “growing up” in the early 1900s, just as the country itself was growing up, asserting its sovereignty over the Arctic and gradually establishing full legislative independence from Britain. Geraldine Moodie’s photographs—and her early copyright certificates—are a part of that history.


Note: For those interested, and with thanks to the Glenbow Museum, here is a file with Geraldine Moodie’s correspondence with the Department of Agriculture (Copyright Branch) for her “Esquimaux” photos. The correspondence shows the trouble that she took to register her work from her remote outpost in Norway House, Keewatin District, NWT.

© Hugh Stephens, 2018. All Rights Reserved.



One thought on “Geraldine Moodie and her Pioneering Photographs: A Piece of Canada’s Copyright History”

  1. You found another interesting story to comment on, Hugh, with the Department of Agriculture tie-in included. It reminded me of being in Mumbai, India, where I was giving a television screenwriting workshop, Qalaam 2001. I had been travelling for six months and didn’t have any of my viewing material on me to show at the workshop so I contacted the Canadian Consulate in Mumbai to see if I could get something taped, or if maybe one of the staff had a TV show taped that that I could borrow and use. It turned out the same man who handled Canadian writers and filmmakers coming to India was also responsible for lumber. Interesting (international) department overlap that obviously continued beyond 1905 and 1908. Joy Thierry Llewellyn


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