Legality of making prints from antique copper engraved plates
August 24, 2014 3:28 PM   Subscribe

I have acquired two engraved copper printing plates which were produced in the 1850s by an artist who is internationally renowned. What is the legal situation regarding issuing my own edition from these plates?

I know this is quite a niche subject but I'm looking only for legal advice not practical advice on printing, etc. The artist died at the end of the 19th century and very limited editions were taken from these plates in the 1850s. What is the copyright situation? Who owns the rights to what is engraved on these plates? I have come across sites online selling prints taken from old plates but these are mainly generic illustrations done for encyclopedias and the like by anonymous or little known artists - the artist in question here is a household name and a reissue of these prints would likely be a news event in the world of collecting. I realise the law is the same regardless of the standing of the artist but I don't wish to invite heat. Artist is British and I'm in the UK. Many thanks.
posted by mani to Law & Government (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Probably an important piece of information is how you acquired them. Were they bequeathed to you, sold to you, found by you? If you bought them, who did you buy them from? Someone that gained them legitimately?
posted by taff at 3:40 PM on August 24, 2014

Response by poster: I purchased them at auction.
posted by mani at 3:45 PM on August 24, 2014

I know this is quite a niche subject but I'm looking only for legal advice


Talk to an IP lawyer.
posted by Justinian at 3:50 PM on August 24, 2014

Publishing companies both large and small have been publishing and selling prints of musical scores from plates that were engraved a lot more recently than 1850. I can't imagine they are still under any kind of copyright protection.
posted by slkinsey at 3:51 PM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Talk to an IP Lawyer and find out if these works were ever published...

In general:

What works have expired into the public domain?
All works published in the U.S. before 1923
All works published with a copyright notice from 1923 through 1963 without copyright renewal
All works published without a copyright notice from 1923 through 1977
All works published without a copyright notice from 1978 through March 1, 1989, and without subsequent registration within 5 years
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:01 PM on August 24, 2014

Best answer: See, the answers you're going to get here are going to be like the ones above: based on someone's guess or for the wrong country. The best you'll get here is what two minutes of googling found me: UK Copyright Law on Engravings. For more detail, ask a lawyer.
posted by MsMolly at 4:12 PM on August 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

There's no way there's copyright protection on what you print. Which is good in that you're not beholden to anyone. On the other hand, I don't think you can expect any protection yourself. Someone else may offer the same images (from a digital copy of your print, say), and you won't be able to keep them from selling it. Still, if you have proof you're printing off original plates, that should legitimize your prints over anyone else's.
posted by rikschell at 5:25 PM on August 24, 2014

I've spoken with printmakers who consider this to be a really bad thing to do. As you're likely aware, printmaking is not just carving into a plate. It's also key to apply and manipulate the ink properly, make sure the press is tightened appropriately, and so on. These techniques are key to producing the perfect print and obviously each artist will judge whether they want a print to be exhibited or sold based on whether they think everything's been done just right. If the artist is not physically present, then, you would in all likelihood be producing prints that they would not consider worthy of putting their name to, much less selling under their name. For precisely these reasons, it's common for artists to put a big slash through their plates after they're done with them. I think it's likely that the artist who made your plates would consider what you propose doing to be a violation, regardless of legality.
posted by Quilford at 1:05 AM on August 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: IANAL

IP law is very jurisdiction-dependent when you get down to edge cases. MsMolly's link and this one indicate that if the engravings had been unpublished then a quirk in copyright law means they would remain under copyright until the expiry of "life plus seventy years" or December 31st, 2039, whichever is later.

You say that "very limited editions" were made from those plates. I take that to mean that they have been "published", and so the copyright period would start to run from that time or from the artist's death, depending on the form of the law at that time. It shouldn't make a difference in this case, because the period of copyright was never longer than life plus seventy years. Copyright will almost certainly have expired by now, because it is vanishingly unlikely that an artist producing prints in the 1850s survived until 1944.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:12 AM on August 25, 2014

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