Thursday, January 30, 2014

Is American Gothic in the Public Domain?

Dear Rich: I just purchased The Public Domain by Stephen Fishman. Glancing through, the author explains how the painting, American Gothic is not' in the public domain. Well, it is! Here is a statement from the Art Institute of Chicago website: "Grant Wood's American Gothic was first published in 1930 but fell into the public domain in the United States in 1958. Wood's estate filed a renewal application in 1980, more than two decades after the one-year renewal window had closed at the end of 1958, but it was too late, so the painting remained in the public domain." What should I believe? The more important question may be, 'what can you afford to believe?' If you have the money to take on VAGA, the licensing organization that represents the estate of Grant Wood, then perhaps you can successfully assert the claims made by academics and by the Art Institute of Chicago (where the painting hangs).  However, keep in mind that not everybody believes the work is in the public domain. In American Gothic: A Life of American's Most Famous Painting (2006), author Steven Biel states that the copyright status of American Gothic "is a matter of considerable murkiness and disagreement." He notes that Nan Wood, who acquired rights from Grant Wood, registered a reproduction of the work in 1952 and renewed the copyright in 1980. If the 1952 registration is valid, then the renewal would be likely be, as well. Although we have our doubts as to the copyright status of the work, we'll sidestep a final verdict on public domain status because the answer can only come from the courts ... which leads us back to your pocketbook (and its size). VAGA maintains that American Gothic is not public domain and continues to assert rights against others, not just for copyright infringement but also for commercial uses of Nan Wood's image (right of publicity). We're all for cultural freedom, but from a practical perspective, if you're using the image ... watch out for that legal pitchfork.


Kris McDonald said...

This is a perfect explanation...the courts will decide. I have a student who wants to use this work in a project. Non-commercially, but publicly nonetheless. I am also responsible for teaching my students ethics/fair use/ copyright, etc. Do we just use it and hope we don't get in trouble (who would ever know)? Do I ask VAGA for permission, thus, drawing attention to ourselves from someone who may not even have the REAL legal claim to it? It has created an interesting ethical dilemma for my poor 8th grader. (FYI, we emailed VAGA and asked permission)

Jeff Shoket said...

Did you get a reply… ?