Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wants to Register Book With Antique Glass Negatives

Dear Rich: I have been collecting interesting antique glass negatives. Some I restored, others I changed artistically. I plan on writing a book of Haiku poetry and using the images from the glass negatives (50-100 of them). The dates of the glass negatives are from approximately 1860 to 1900. Some are from countries which match our copyright laws. The photographers are unknown. Do I have to apply for a copyright on each image separately or can I just submit the whole book for copyright (including the images)? 

We think you should wait until the book is completed and then register the copyright as a literary work, focusing on protection of your haikus. Registration of the imagery (the glass negatives) is more complicated.
Copyright in glass negatives. Even if the negatives are in the public domain (see discussion below), you would not be able to claim copyright if you simply restored the image. We think restoration -- though it requires great skill -- lacks the originality necessary to transform a public domain work into a registrable work. In the end it is closer to the "slavish reproductions" referenced in the Bridgeman Art Library case. As for the negatives that you "changed artistically," you may be able to register your modifications as a derivative work. And if you have several modified negatives you can register the modified collection as one registration, again assuming the works are in the public domain.
Public domain status. You can assume that the glass negatives are in the public domain if they were published before 1900. However, you can't make that assumption if the works were never published -- that is copies were never distributed for sale or loan to the public. Unpublished glass negatives may be protected in some cases for 120 years. As a practical matter we doubt whether you will hear from an angry centenarian photographer (or his or her estate) but the issue of whether the negatives are protected by copyright arises when seeking to register derivative works.
Registration process. The less expensive method of registration is to file electronically using the standard application for $55 (versus $85 for paper applications). It's possible that you can register both text and imagery on one registration provided they qualify as a single unit of publication. You can read the rules here (scroll down to "What Can Be Included on a Single Application?") As the sole author of the haikus, you can definitely register them as a single unit but we're not sure of the copyright status of the glass negatives (or what you've contributed) so we're unclear whether your modifications as a group merit a single unit registration for the whole book. And as we point out regularly, you obtain copyright regardless of registration; it's automatic.
P.S. Even it's not your birthday today, happy birthday.