What Can I Steal?

dctroy's picture

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.

Thanks,

Troy

tsprowl's picture

just because they are old dosen't mean they are out of commision.

the cartoon will probably belong to a publishing company. the posters - a museum, the gouvernment or private collector. the type in the specimen books will belong to the next foundry who bought it up. Garamond is dead but you still have to pay for it. Most likely Duffy did pay the publishing company or Artville, or Tony Stone or wherever they got it.

I had a huge discussion regarding copyright and collages on the GDC. You can search "copyright" in their archives if your interested. http://www.gdc.net/search_listserv.php

capthaddock's picture

I believe 70 years is the maximum in the US (an immoral length of time, stupid Mickey Mouse copyright laws), assuming an extension was filed. Obviously, though, anything 100 years old is not under copyright. And it's worth pointing out that typefaces cannot be copyrighted in the United States.

Paying for Garamond? That's like paying the Pope for Roman serifs. You only pay for some foundry's version (interpretation) of Garamond.

Paul

kentlew's picture

Troy --

Here is a rule of thumb summarized from Patent, Copyright, and Trademark by Stephen Elias, published by Nolo Press. (I recommend this book for further reading on copyright. It's very accessible and a valuable resource.):

Works created on or after January 1, 1978: If the "author" is an individual, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If the "author" is an employer or commissioner of a work made for hire, the copyright lasts for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date the work was created, whichever comes first.

Works created or published before January 1, 1978: 75 years from the date of publication, assuming that a timely renewal was filed after the first 28 years.

A work of art may be in the public domain -- like the Mona Lisa, for instance -- but any photographic image that you find of it is most likely covered by the photographer's (or the institution's) copyright. So you can't just copy it out of a book. Since the Louvre will not allow you to take a photograph of the Mona Lisa yourself, you may not be able to find an image of the Mona Lisa that you can reproduce without a license. (But you could legally paint your own.)

Altering an image is considered creating a derivative work, and the right to control the creation of derivatives is part of copyright. So even if you only use a small portion of something you copy, or if you alter it in some way, you may still be violating copyright if you don't get permission.

The creation of fine art can be a slightly different matter, since there is an area of the Fair Use exemption which allows for parody or homage, but the definitions can be somewhat hazy.

Typeface designs are not covered by US Copyright. But other aspects may be (like software, for digital fonts). Some metal typefaces were issued patents. There is no copyright issue in copying a typeface from a 75+ year old specimen.

Disclaimer: I am not an intellectual property rights attorney. These are broad statements and rules of thumb and do not constitute professional advice.

I really do recommend the book mentioned above for a better understanding of the intricacies of this area of law. It may give you a better idea of when you should consult an attorney.

-- Kent.

dctroy's picture

Thanks for your help, everyone.
Kent, I will investigate the book your recommended. Your advice is just what I need -- thanks for taking the time!

--Troy

johnbutler's picture

You should definitely check with an IP lawyer on this one. I believe legislation is either on the docket or already passed which extends protection to 90 years after the author's death, and includes allowances for corporate ownership. This area of law is anything but stable these days.

Personally, I think death plus 90 is unduly extreme and will only cause more people to take copyright less seriously.

rattoc's picture

True. But I heard about an expiration term. For what I heard it works like this: you create something and it's yours while you are alive to collect royalties. After your departure to the = Great Whatever Next the ownership is your heir's and relative's for a period = of time - it's said it's a long time. Not sure. Then a third-part may buy = the rights for another period. After that it's public domain.

I'm not sure though.

C Yall.

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