I was curious about copyrights

and when they expired, and what was needed to protect your work of art.

This is culled from About.com which in itself may be a copyright infringement:

When Copyright Protection Becomes Public Domain

The data below will let you know when you can safely use a piece of art or music without permission because it is now in public domain after copyright protection expiration, or how long the copyright protection will last.

  • Published before 1923 – now in public domain(so this explains why so many books I’ve downloaded for free are available.  In addition, Google recently came to an agreement with the Author’s Guild so that books under copyright could be published on their book site under certain circumstances).
  • Published from 1923 to 1963 – When published with a copyright notice © or “Copyright [dates] by [author/owner]” – copyright protection lasts 28 years and could be renewed for an additional 67 years for a total of 95 years. If not renewed, now in public domain.(according to this rule, many of the images that I did as a kid are now in the public domain since I haven’t declared them as copyrighted.  However, I also haven’t published them, so no worry there.)
  • Published from 1923 to 1963 – When published with no notice – now in public domain
  • Published from 1964 to 1977 – When published with notice – copyright protection lasts 28 years for first term; automatic extension of 67 years for second term for a total of 95 years.
  • Created before 1/1/1978 but not published – copyright notice is irrelevant – copyright protection lasts for the life of author and 70 years or 12/31/2002, whichever is greaterDoes presentation on a web site mean that they are/were published?  I believe so.
  • Created before 1/1/1978 and published between 1/1/1978 and 12/31/2002 – notice is irrelevant – copyright protection lasts the life of author and 70 years or 12/31/2047, whichever is greater(So to protect my earlier works, it is important for me to live a long time)
  • Created 1/1/1978 or after – When work is fixed in tangible medium of expression – notice is irrelevant – copyright protection lasts for the life of author and 70 years based on the the longest living author if jointly created or if work of corporate authorship, works for hire, or anonymous and pseudonymous works, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.
  • This covers most of my sellable prints.  “Notice is irrelevant.”  However, in another part of this article it says that:

    “Use of the copyright notice may be important because it informs the public that the work is protected by copyright, identifies the copyright owner, and shows the year of first publication. Furthermore, in the event that a work is infringed, if a proper notice of copyright appears on the published copy or copies to which a defendant in a copyright infringement suit had access, then no weight shall be given to such a defendant’s defense based on innocent infringement. Innocent infringement occurs when the infringer did not realize that the work was protected.”

  • So legally, you do not need to put the copyright symbol or phrase on your work in order for it to be copyrighted, however if someone uses that work without permission and it comes to trial, without the copyright notice they can simply claim ignorance. Therefore, if I am reading this properly at the very least, photographs which were published before 1923 are now in the public domain. And eventually, all works of art end up in the public domain.

Now, this has nothing to do with ownership of the actual work of art.  Let’s say that the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns Starry Starry Night by Van Gogh, or maybe it is on loan from the owners.  If I take a photograph of that painting – the copyright on my photograph belongs to me and I am free to use it to my heart’s content.  And that eventually, that photograph will end up in the public domain and someone else can use it.  I wonder if that is true.

One thing that’s for sure.  Although Van Gogh signed his first name to most of his work, he never did place a copyright symbol on it.  That may have been a big oversight on his part.


6 thoughts on “I was curious about copyrights

  1. Dave,

    Thanks. This is a good reminder. To continue the discussion … what info do you put on the front of a print? Number of the print? How do you sign it?

    I put title, sometimes place, year and signature. I think I’m now going to include that little (C) symbol.


  2. Brent – that sort of cleared things up for me. I sign my name, put the year it was printed, and if it’s a limited edition, number it: 5/100

    The same for open editions less the number.

    Whether it’s going too far to put the circle with the C on the print itself – I dunno. I can’t imagine that it’s done very often.

  3. The year it was printed?

    Or the year it was taken?

    Ansel Adams rubber-stamped the back of his (dry-mounted) prints with print made date and negative made date.

    But no copyright.

  4. Hi,

    Do you know anything about the copyright law on negatives? I own a photographer’s entire negatives estate and she passed away with no known relatives (at least none that I can find in the U.S.). I’m trying to do an exibit here in Chicago with her work from the 50-60’s but want to make sure I can.

    I’m also throwing around the idea of a gallery style book with her work. All of which would be made from the negatives.

    Any suggestions?

  5. John, I wouldn’t have any idea. It would seem to me that if you own the negatives, then you could do with them as you wish. But really – that’s a question for a lawyer. I’m posting your question here in case a reader has a more informed answer. db

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