What the law says about reproducing and using old photos.
Q. I have family portraits dating from 1880 to 1890 that I tried to copy on a store's film kiosk. The clerk there told me I wasn't allowed to make copies because of copyright laws applying to professional photos. I've previously taken some to studios and had negatives and prints made with no problems. There are no copyright symbols on the photos, and they're well over 100 years old. Was the clerk right?
A. Photographs, letters and other documents collected for family histories are subject to copyright law, which protects exactly what it says: the right to make copies. This includes photocopying a work, having it reproduced, creating other products using that work, even e-mailing or posting on a Web sire. According to copyright law, you may not make copies (paper or electronic) of a work without the permission of the copyright owner, unless your reproduction is deemed a “fair use” (more on this later).
Copyright used to last 28 years and he renewable for another 28 years. That changed July 1,1978, when the duration was extended. Now copyright belongs to the creator of the work — the photographer, artist, letter writer — for his or her lifetime plus 70 years. That's the case even if there's no copyright symbol on the work. If a work was created in the scope of someone's employment (called a “work for hire”), the employer is considered the owner, and the copyright lasts a total of 95 years. When the law changed in 1978, works already in the public domain remained public, but works still under copyright automatically fell under the longer term.