Thursday, May 26, 2011

Copyright on 100-Year Old Photos?

Fritzie The Hawaiian
Hula Girl circa 1920s
Dear Rich: I have come across some very old photos taken by an uncle over 100 years ago. A few were sold to magazines at the time but most were never published. They were made into prints however. What would the copyright status on these be? My uncle died in the 40's. Could they be published now and copyright claimed starting in 2011?  As for the photos published in magazines before 1923, as you probably know, they are all in the public domain. We think it's possible there may be a few years remaining on your uncle's unpublished photographs. (By the way, making prints for private distribution does not amount to publication.) Copyright on those photos will end 70 years after your uncle's death. So if he died in 1949, you can claim eight more years of protection. You may find this strange, but under a quirk in copyright law, you could have earned an additional 45 years of protection (until 2047) if you had published these photos before December 31, 2002. (Who knew?) Publication after that date doesn't kick in this extra time period. For more on duration, check out the Copyright office circular on the subject.