Tracking down copyright owners
December 1, 2004 6:24 AM   Subscribe

Tracking down copyright owners... [more inside]

As a subsection of my personal site I've made a hundred or so vintage postcards available as e-cards. I state that nothing is copyrighted but after some high profile links (Yahoo picks, USA Today, Sprint of Canada, etc.) I'm beginning to wonder if that is really true.

All of the cards date from 1900-1910 and while some have publishers on them Google searches have turned up nothing and I expect the companies are no longer in business. Others are of European origin. Is there any way I can find out for sure if these are copyrighted or do I just wait for a nastygram?
posted by cedar to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
My understanding is that everything from before 1923 is fair game. If I'm wrong on that, someone please correct me.
posted by Alt F4 at 6:48 AM on December 1, 2004

That's the rule Project Gutenberg uses. You should be fine if you have the cards themselves.

The only likely complication would be if, for example, you didn't have the cards themselves, but were taking images of them from, say, a book published in 1982. Depending on what the producers of that book had done with the images (touched them up, any sort of restoration), the images published in the book might have a 1982 copyright.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:54 AM on December 1, 2004

anything pre-1923 is out of copyright in the US.
posted by mathowie at 7:16 AM on December 1, 2004

Thanks... yes, I have the physical cards (they were sent by members of my family).

DevilsAdvocate: what you said interests me. Because of the condition of the cards there was quite a bit of Photoshopping involved in the process -- does this mean that I could claim copyright over my images of public domain material?

It's not something that I would do right now, but might consider if I was providing print ready versions.
posted by cedar at 7:19 AM on December 1, 2004

Your scans of pre-1923 material are owned by you, if I understand things correctly. That's why I can't scan in and publish my anthologies of old comix; if I had the originals, I could.
posted by sonofsamiam at 7:46 AM on December 1, 2004

The relevant court case is Bridgeman vs. Corel, which found that images of 2D objects that are in the public domain are not copyrightable. I would think that restoring the images wouldn't change this, since you're only trying to get closer to the pristine public domain original.
posted by smackfu at 7:49 AM on December 1, 2004

DevilsAdvocate: what you said interests me. Because of the condition of the cards there was quite a bit of Photoshopping involved in the process -- does this mean that I could claim copyright over my images of public domain material?

That's a definite maybe. As smackfu points out, if you're just trying to restore the original condition, probably not. If you're doing something more creative with your photoshopping, there's a good chance you could.

I'd go with the safe assumption in both cases. Assume you do not have copyright over your photoshop-restored images. Assume our hypothetical 1982 publisher does have copyright over their photoshop-restored images. One of the assumptions is almost certainly wrong, but you'll stay out of trouble either way.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:34 AM on December 1, 2004

Well, that's settled now :)

Thanks, I understand this is stuff still being hashed out by people with real law degrees and everything. I'll be sticking with the public domain deal for everything -- it's just that bandwidth is shooting through the roof and I'm beginning to grasp at straws trying to figure out a way (short of advertising) to recover some of the soon to be billed expense.
posted by cedar at 8:40 AM on December 1, 2004

I just wanted to chime in here and make sure that there was one thing made clear. The 1923/Public Domain issue not withstanding, just the fact that you have an actual physical/original copy of a document, piece of art, etc. - that does not grant you rights to reproduce that material.

That's something that copy shops run up against all the time.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:20 AM on December 1, 2004

FB, I'm not exactly sure what you are trying to say in your post above.

We've established on this thread:

a) cedar has original copies of postcards that are no longer covered by copyright--as they are no longer copyrighted, cedar is free to reproduce them.

b) Now, if cedar had, for example, a 1982 book with photographs of the same postcards in it, cedar could not reproduce the postcards from those photographs, as the photographs themselves would be covered by copyright, even though the postcards were not.

c) If cedar had original copies of postcards from 1982, cedar could not reproduce them because they would still be covered by copyright.

I can't tell whether your post is agreeing with the above, or raising an additional complication.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:57 AM on December 1, 2004

Sidhedevil - I am agreeing with what you wrote and apologies if I missed that point in early comments.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:01 AM on December 1, 2004

No worries. I may need more coffee or something; I just couldn't tell if you were suggesting that there was something else that was being overlooked.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:33 AM on December 1, 2004

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