British photographic history

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Is there anyone out there that has a good grasp of photographic copyright. 

1. Does it expire 70 years after the death of the photographer?

2. Is it possible to acquire the copyright of images that comply with Fig.1 ?

3. Are regulations international?

As Neg/Pos photography means that it is possible to have duplicates can any one person or organisation own the copyright?

Does the owner of a Daguerrotype own the copyright? As it is a one off.

Has there been any test cases?

I have heard that some organisations claim the copyright of a photograph by making slight alterations, is there any guideline about what constitutes adequate changes.

I am sure in my collection I have photographs which although made from a negative are the sole prints ever made. These are mainly from amateurs, where one print would be all that was needed. Do I own their copyright?

I contacted one organization who claimed copyright of an image I was interested in, who replied that they had gone to a lot of legal expense to ensure that they held the copyright.

It all seems a very grey area.

It would be nice and simple if Fig 1 applied universally, but does it!

Thanks to everyone.

Geoff Lowe

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Geoff, I am not an attorney and I would certainly contact one with copyright background, so keep that in mind when reviewing the following information.

1. It can expire 75 years after the death of the artist.  But there are both ways for the item to fall into public domain where anyone can use it, and ways for it to continue to be renewed and protected.  Caution is urged.

2. You can get copyright permission from the copyright holder, which is the only way currently to acquire copyright.  Some items do fall into public domain and can, as such, be used by any one.  Some items are not allowed to be accessed except by license agreement, but multiples like photographs make that tricky to maintain, since others can make similar claims.  And once a copy is out in the public eye, it is fair game.

3. Regulations are indeed international by treaty but can vary somewhat by locale.

4. No, anyone with a copy of a photograph does not own the copyright.  That only comes from the artist or their estate, or the purchaser of the copyright from that artist.

5. The owner of a daguerreotype doesn't own a copyright. They may try to protect it through licensing, but it really is in public domain.  But in order to get a proper image for publication, you still might have to pay a fee and sign a limiting license agreement.

6. Yes, there is plenty of court law and legal precedence on these matters. But that doesn't mean that laws don't change, nor court decisions.  But such precedence does count for a lot.

7. It used to be thought that just to re-photograph an item would make it eligible for copyrighting.  Some museums tried to do just that.  That approach was overturned in the American courts.  The new image must be much more than a copy.

8. Photos one-off or not in your collection do not give you ownership of copyright.  The original artist or their estate will probably still own the copyright unless they sold the rights or the item fell into public domain.

9. Yes, some things in copyright law are a bit gray and even troublesome.  These laws have serious flaws that have prevented publication of many important books and histories.

Alex provides a good summary. Item 7 is interesting. The following was posted in another newsgroup: 

Following Lee's earlier posting I took a look at the journal Art
Documentation which contains a number of fascinating articles (I was only
able to see abstracts). One article examined the use of out of copyright
photographs and the impact of the Bridgeman Art Library vs Coral court case.
The upshot seems to be the in the US and UK no copyright is established by a
museum or gallery if it simply reproduces an out of copyright photograph and
therefore there is nothing to stop anyone using such reproductions
commercially or otherwise. Needless to say Bridgeman and galleries have
been reluctant to highlight this. The whole article is available free at:

There is such a quagmire of conflicting statutes and judgements on these issues that, in my view, none of the questions can be answered with any certainty at all. The situation is certainly not as clear cut, alas, as the author of the article Michael cites would like to believe, nor on the other hand as owning institutions usually make out.

On the question of duration, for example, in the UK, under the (transitional) provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, prima facie all photographs taken before 1 Jan 1946 are now out of copyright, irrespective of whether the author has been dead for 70 years or is still alive (you never see this mentioned). However, these provisions appear to be in direct conflict with those of the various EC Council Directives on copyright, which the UK is supposed to have adopted.

On the question of reproductions, originality is not defined in the CDPA and the case law on it has oscillated between opposite positions over the last 120 years (notwithstanding Interlego and Bridgeman). Interestingly, the recent Council Directives make reference to "photographs which are original in the sense that they are the author's own intellectual creation" and "original if it is the author's own intellectual creation reflecting his personality". This is Ruskin's old definition of what constitutes a work of fine art, and the argument he gave why photographs as a whole, even original, should not qualify. 

I believe that in some EC countries - Germany and Austria - photographs that are not original are nevertheless also protected by copyright, just not for as long. I don't think Judge Kaplan in Bridgeman v. Corel considered this, nor the fact that under the CDPA what applies in one EU country (at a certain date) is also taken as applying to the UK.

Some might argue that copyright law is irrelevant anyway, since if terms and conditions imposed by an owner of an out-of-copyright work bind a user of a reproduction of that work to certain obligations about not making further copies of the reproduction, the issue becomes one of contract law. Whether the same terms and conditions can be imposed on all other users of the reproduction - i.e. owners or readers of the book in which the reproduction is used - is not something I can pretend to understand.

Like I said: can of worms. 

Well thanks for that, Alex, Michael & Giles - I have read with interest your postings and am still wondering if I am any the wiser! What the discussion does show is that we all need some simplification of the laws regarding copyright and photography. Even now in this miraculous digital age Ruskin is still having his influence felt when I thought it was out of the window a century ago! Thanks Guys.

May I just add to the wisdom above by suggesting a small book: Duncan Spiers, Intellectual Property Law (Dundee University Press, 2009) which sets out the law in plain language. Duncan is an advocate at the Scottish Bar and teaches law at Napier University so he is well placed to understand the subject.

Does this book cover the problem internationally?

No, it is really just Britain and Europe.

Just  wondered whether the rules were the same for negatives as photographs?  I bought original negatives at an auction featuring the estate of a photographer who died in the 1960s.  

My understanding is that the photographer's copyright lasts for 70 years after his death. So his family, if he had any, may be able to make a claim if you were to print the material or publish it. I suspect no-one would make a claim unless you looked to be making a fortune!

James Furnival said:

Just  wondered whether the rules were the same for negatives as photographs?  I bought original negatives at an auction featuring the estate of a photographer who died in the 1960s.  

I am sure you are right about the 70 years - and negatives and positives must be equally significant. But does this apply worldwide?

Afraid so, Geoff.  The U.S. and most of the world almost always follows the EU unfortunately on copyright/trademark laws.  And I might be wrong, but I thought the protection was now 75 years after the death of the artist.

If you want to know how screwy these things are just look at the mess on the Vivian Mayers negatives and prints.  Not only are the lawyers going to third cousins to find an estate to make claims and sue, but then you have a County in Illinois making the same claims against the dealers on this.

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