How to find which photos are public domain?

Open, general discussion of silent films, personalities and history.
  • Author
  • Message
Offline
User avatar

telical

  • Posts: 921
  • Joined: Fri Jun 24, 2011 10:46 pm

How to find which photos are public domain?

PostSat Sep 02, 2017 11:06 am

How do I know if certain photos or stills of silent films are public domain?
Offline
User avatar

Brooksie

  • Posts: 2616
  • Joined: Wed Jun 30, 2010 6:41 pm
  • Location: Portland, Oregon via Sydney, Australia

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostSat Sep 02, 2017 2:39 pm

Hoo boy, this is an enormous question. Setting aside the general principle of 'anything prior to 1923 is in the public domain,' (presuming you're talking about copyright in the USA), it depends on a number of factors, including the country of origin, whether the photo is published or unpublished, what you plan to do with it, and sometimes the archive or organisation that possesses the physical copy (there may be donor restriction issues that lay outside copyright).

https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/195_copr.html provides a good overview of the issues involved (see especially the section called ' How Long Copyright Lasts'), and contains links to some of the circulars the US Copyright Office have posted on the topic (this one provides another basic overview).

Caveat emptor, it's a mine-strewn field.
Offline
User avatar

David Menefee

  • Posts: 123
  • Joined: Sat Jul 26, 2008 5:49 pm
  • Location: Author, editor, and Assistant Publisher BearManor Media

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostSat Sep 02, 2017 5:58 pm

Never assume that vintage photos are Public Domain. Many of the biggest stars (Chaplin, Lloyd, Swanson, Pickford, Gish) still have active estates that are funded and experienced at litigation.

Many studios applied for new copyrights in 1972-1978, when Copyright rules changed, of all their material originally copyrighted in previous decades. Also well-funded, they are adept at sending Cease and Desist letters.
Offline
User avatar

silentfilm

Moderator

  • Posts: 9014
  • Joined: Tue Dec 18, 2007 12:31 pm
  • Location: Dallas, TX USA

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostSat Sep 02, 2017 6:12 pm

If it is a studio-issued still, it is probably not copyrighted. Studios gave their photos to newspapers and magazines for reproduction as publicity. A recent Supreme Court case has ruled that the photos can be freely reproduced as photos. However, if you make a new product out of the photo, the trademark on the character can take precedence. This also applies to the estates of Pickford, Lloyd, Swanson, John Wayne and others, whose descendants have trademarked their likenesses. I've supplied movie stills for a dozen books and nobody has sued or complained. (The late Nitratevillain Bob Birchard explained this to me. He supplied photos to many, many books.)

http://www.latimes.com/business/hollywood/la-fi-ct-warner-bros-copyright-20161101-story.html

If it is a still from a news agency, it is likely copyrighted. However, many of the photo agencies from the classic period have gone out of business, making it difficult to track them down.
Offline
User avatar

Brooksie

  • Posts: 2616
  • Joined: Wed Jun 30, 2010 6:41 pm
  • Location: Portland, Oregon via Sydney, Australia

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostSun Sep 03, 2017 12:33 am

silentfilm wrote:If it is a still from a news agency, it is likely copyrighted. However, many of the photo agencies from the classic period have gone out of business, making it difficult to track them down.


The advice I've seen from the Library of Congress is that much like studio publicity stills, very few wirephotos were formally copyrighted or re-registered. However, some modern day wire services who purchased the holdings of older companies may still assert ownership over certain images produced between 1923-1963.

The fact that even the LoC concludes that researchers have to take a calculated risk in some cases gives an idea of how problematic this area is. Hopefully some of the folks who are currently at Cinecon will chime in once they're back.
Offline
User avatar

telical

  • Posts: 921
  • Joined: Fri Jun 24, 2011 10:46 pm

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostMon Sep 04, 2017 4:40 pm

I think it would help the cause of Silent Film if someone could put up a page of some of the better images that are known to be in public domain.
Offline

sepiatone

  • Posts: 2320
  • Joined: Mon Oct 11, 2010 3:10 pm
  • Location: East Coast, USA

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostMon Sep 04, 2017 7:05 pm

This is somewhat complicated. Most photos, lobby posters, lobby cards dealing with the silent era pre-1923 are Public Domain unless otherwise noted with such as ie a watermark.

From 1924 onward but before 1978 an image may be Public Domain if it is absent of any copyright indication; this is common with film lobby cards.

I may stand corrected but this is what was told to me.
Offline
User avatar

silentfilm

Moderator

  • Posts: 9014
  • Joined: Tue Dec 18, 2007 12:31 pm
  • Location: Dallas, TX USA

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostTue Sep 05, 2017 12:24 pm

telical wrote:I think it would help the cause of Silent Film if someone could put up a page of some of the better images that are known to be in public domain.


Do you mean like my website, the Silent Film Still Archive? I have the original photos of all of these images (unless noted on the web page). As I said before, I do supply authors with scans if they need them. I've even supplied hig-def scans for art projects, museums, historical societies, television documentaries and movie theaters.
Offline
User avatar

David Menefee

  • Posts: 123
  • Joined: Sat Jul 26, 2008 5:49 pm
  • Location: Author, editor, and Assistant Publisher BearManor Media

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostTue Sep 05, 2017 4:36 pm

Caveat emptor. I can tell you from my experience writing and publishing dozens of books, and working on hundreds of other book projects for multiple publishers, that when you least expect it, a production company, an Estate, or a photographer will pop up and demand that you cease and desist using their intellectual property, which can result in costly redos. Fair use is one thing, such as using a wire service-issued image in an article, but using an image for selling something for a profit is something else. The only safe way is to use your own new material, or in the case of a vintage photo, hire a lawyer to perform a copyright search. Don't assume that because you've gotten away with infringement previously that you will always will.
Offline
User avatar

missdupont

  • Posts: 2270
  • Joined: Mon Sep 07, 2009 9:48 pm
  • Location: California

Re: How to find which photos are public domain?

PostTue Sep 05, 2017 7:40 pm

The stars and the photographers worked as hire for the studios, which never copyrighted the stills, and in fact, acted as quid pro quo with their main publicity outlets, magazines, and newspapers, freely sending stills to be used as publicity. They wanted them used in any fashion to promote films and stars, asking no permission and in fact suggesting uses for them in the papers. Variety notes that Fox sent out 50,000 stills on THE ROBE to every newspaper and magazine in the country, thereby waiving copyright. The MGM Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library has 2000 images alone in the silent BEN HUR file. The studios weren't keeping these to themselves, asking for money or signoffs, for use, they freely gave them away. In fact, in the first lawsuit that Bruce Calvert mentions, the judge specifically ruled, "Publicity stills are in the public domain." Unless images were for a special shoot, say Edward Steichen images for Vanity Fair, or a photographer like Milton Greene, Andre de diene, etc. that Marilyn Monroe hired for images, they are pd and able to use in books, presentations, and the like. Attorneys I know that looked at the second lawsuit brief says they would be able to be used on T-shirts, but not to create tchotkes. Bob Birchard, Mark Vieira, Marc Wanamaker, and Tony Slide have been saying these things all along for years.

Return to Talking About Silents

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Yahoo [Bot] and 6 guests