Dear Rich: I've recently been using images from Edward S. Curtis' Portraits from American Indian Life. The book was published in 1972 and has a copyright for that date. Curtis died in 1952 and the book itself is now rare. According to the research I've done the photos themselves were under Curtis' copyright which was forfeited by his daughter and family when he died. Does the book publisher -- who no longer exists but supposedly acquired the copyrighted material from J. P. Morgan (to whom Curtis had sold the original copyright) -- still have the copyright to the material? If so, who do I need to contact in order to obtain perission to continue to use the four images I've used. I have reproduced his images by free hand as closely as I can. [Corrected 06/28/2009 -- Following our initial response to this question, Peter Hirtle offered three corrections. First, he reported that the Library of Congress considers all of Curtis' work to be in the public domain. Second, our dates were off by one year, as corrected below. And third, he reports that "[b]ecause the photographs were individually registered, renewal had to occur according to the date of registration. If they had never been registered, then renewal date would depend upon the date of first publication." Thanks! Check out Peter's copyright duration chart, here.]
The short answer is that you probably don't need to obtain permission from anyone to reproduce the images. Curtis' American Indian photographs were originally published in a series of books from 1907 through 1930. All of the photos in the books published before 1923 are in the public domain. The photos published between 1923 and 1930 are probably in the public domain since it estimated only about 11 percent of copyrights issued before 1964 were renewed. (We explain how to search Copyright Office records in this post.)
What if the copyright was renewed?
If the copyright was timely renewed in the 1923-1930 volumes, those photos won't begin dropping into the PD until 2027 (75 years from Curtis' death). You are probably familiar with the Library of Congress' digital reproductions of Curtis' work (the photo above is currently on loan to the Dear Rich Staff). One nice thing about the LOC project is that it groups the photos by year of publication.
What about your creations?