Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Old Photos: Who Owns the Copyright?

How many times do we encounter old photographs, often taken generations ago by unknown photographers who have long passed, with someone else's proclamation of copyright emblazoned across the image? How often are we annoyed by peers and/or collectors who will only share deliberately 'dumbed-down' low-resolution images because they fear that 'their copyright' will be infringed upon? If you're me, it's very often. All the more so because I happen to know a dark secret that these folks, who often apply these protective measures out of a desire to make money off of the respective photos, do not want you to know: They have no legal right to the use of the photographs, and their invocation of any copyright is completely nefarious and illegal.

The copyright to any given photo belongs to whoever took the photograph. If they are no longer alive, then the copyright falls to their next of kin, or possibly to other parties that may vary depending upon the right of passage laws in the country of origin. Some person who bought an old original print on eBay does NOT hold the copyright to the image. Somebody who snags a strip of old negatives at a garage sale does not hold the copyright to those photos. Just because the name of the original photographer might not be known, or because the provenance of a photo is a mystery, that does not change it's legal status. The image may be used in a publication and that use might never be challenged due to the aforementioned circumstances - but that doesn't change who owns the copyright.

I suggest reading the following, if anyone doesn't take my word for this: http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog/2012/03/06/copyright-and-the-old-family-photo   

I'm a passionate activist with respect this subject. I've seen many otherwise reputable and respectable people within my historical genre' try to lay claim to any and every photograph that they can get their hands on. I've had some of them refuse to share a photo with me, or anyone else, because they wrongly claim to hold the copyright and plan to make us buy their book someday (which typically never gets published). In other cases some of these individuals will only share an image with a huge 'copyright' symbol in the middle of it. These measures are also done as a not-so-subtle means of marking their territory; to deny something of value to others out of a sense of supremacy. Not everyone is as ill-intentioned, of course, but they're out there. Some people just assume they own the copyright to these sorts of photos, and they proclaim their 'right' because so many others do.

And this needs to change.

I make it a goal in my life to accumulate all of the old and historically significant photographs that I can from all possible sources and share those images by any and all means necessary. I do that under the terms of fair use, as I don't make a penny by so doing and by so doing I contribute to the communal education of all who are interested in seeing them, discussing the photos, and passing them on to others under the same terms.

See the definition of 'fair use' here: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use

I share many of these photographs on my Japanese WWII Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/JAircraft

All the best!

Ron Cole

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