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Different laws for different countries

As I described in the previous post, different countries have widely different copyright laws. For instance, in Mexico copyright expires 100 years after the author dies! Civil-War-era pictures taken in Mexico would still be under copyright so long as the author died less that a century ago. But that's Mexico's copyright. In the U.S. it would be considered public domain (PD), and you could use the image any way you like. Just don't try to sell copies in Mexico. Other countries have more liberal copyright laws. In Japan, copyright expires 50 years after the author (or photographer) dies, so a World War II photograph taken under Japanese jurisdiction would be public domain in Japan if the photographer died more than 50 years ago. (A photo taken in the U.S. at the same time would still be under copyright.) It simply depends on the country.

In this global village, however, these things get murky. For web pages in general, the country where the servers reside is the country whose laws have to be obeyed. And since the U.S. is the Ultimate Big Boy On The Block, so long as you live in the U.S. and follow U.S. copyright rules, you should be okay. If you live elsewhere, of course, your rules are different.

So what are the U.S. copyright rules for materials published outside the U.S.? Happily, there are only limited differences. If any photograph was first published before 1923, then the U.S. considers it PD no matter what the country of origin thinks. It might also be PD if (a) the work was created before 1977, and (b) the work was considered PD in its country of origin in 1996. I know, that's horribly, unnecessarily complicated. But this is copyright law we're talking about. As a practical matter, if the photo's country of origin considers the photo PD, then you're safe using it as if it were PD, even if the photo was taken after 1922.

In most countries, copyright expires 50 years after the death of the author (or photographer). In European Union countries, and countries that are hoping to become EU countries, copyright expires 70 years after the creator's death. Central and South America are a little weird. A list of the copyright terms for each country can be found here. But you usually have to find out when the photographer died, which is difficult in practice, so if you don't know, you're only safe if the photo was published before 1923.


There's one more complication, but it's a good thing. The rules I gave you above are a result of bilateral or multilateral copyright treaties between the U.S. and other countries. But there are a few countries that don't have any copyright treaties with the U.S. For works produced in those countries by residents of those countries, the U.S. considers them not copyrightable and therefore PD. These countries are Bhutan, Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal, San Marino, and probably Yemen (although that situation is a bit murky.) Also, some countries have only recently entered into such treaties with the U.S. If a work was produced by a resident in Iraq before 2004, in Afghanistan before 2002, or in countries of the former Soviet Union before May 27, 1973, then the work is considered uncopyrighted and PD in the U.S.

Here are some resources which are considered public domain because their host country does not have a copyright treaty with the United States. Again, be sure that the photo was taken in the country in question, by a resident of the country (and not a by tourist or foreign reporter).

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