Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Holy Ghosts: Claiming Copyright on 200 Year-old Painting

Dear Rich: I found an abandoned painting in an old house I used to live in. It was painted in the 1800's.  I would like to make posters of it.  Is there a way I can become the copyright owner? The short answer is "no" (and we're a little bit saddened by your question.) You are free to make posters and you are also free to modify the work with your own additional artwork and make derivative versions and -- provided you've added some original authorship -- you can control the copyright on the derivatives. But you cannot claim copyright ownership over the original. 
Why We Get Depressed
Nothing personal, but the idea of someone hijacking public domain material and limiting its use depresses the Dear Rich staff -- whether it is a book publisher claiming copyright over Moby Dick or a museum trying to claim copyright over its photos of the Mona Lisa (a practice known as 'copyfraud'). And of course, whoever created that painting would really be depressed to learn -- should they return from the dead -- that someone  is claiming all rights to the work. You don't want to be haunted by that possibility.