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I understand the copyright rules that pertain to recently-produced material. But what about when it comes to old photos, illustrations, typefaces, etc. -- what are the rules governing re-use? If I find a cartoon that is more than 70 years old is it fair game? What about posters from 1900? What if only use a portion or alter it in some way? I'm talking about use in commercial design context -- not fine art or a journalism-type use. Are the rules different for fine art? Can I copy a Mondrian painting and use it as a background? If I find a type specimin book from the 1940s from a company that's gone out of business is it okay to use type designs from the book?
I've been to the Library of Congress site and read their long, somewhat vague explanations of what's protected and what's not, but I still can't find a basic rule of thumb to apply to older material.
I see this re-use of obviously old stuff all the time and it's hard to believe that someone has tracked down the original creators and obtained permission. Did the Duffy Design Group or Charles Anderson locate the illustrator of all those tiny spot illustrations from the thirties that they re-used in their 1980s-era stuff?
Any help you can give me would be great -- or if you know of another resource that I could check out that would be very helpful.