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Old images in the public domain

Besides images that were never copyrightable in the first place, some images used to be copyrighted, but their copyright has expired. These images are also in the public domain (PD).

There is a wonderful abundance of older images available on the World Wide Web, some of them out of copyright. Here are a few of my favorite sites featuring old PD images:
All of those above are PD due to age. So how do you know if an old image is old enough to be PD or not? It's both really simple, and really complicated.

The simple answer is, if a picture (or anything else) was first published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, then its PD (in the U.S.). If it wasn't, then it's probably not. For most purposes, that's good enough. So long as you only deal with those pictures, you're guarranteed safe. But for other cases, the devil's in the details.

But what if the image was never published? If an image was never published (or if it was first published after 2002 even though it was created before 1935), then different rules apply. If an unpublished work was created by a known author with a known year of death, then the work is in the public domain if the author died before 1935. If the unpublished work is by an anonymous or corporate author, or if the year of death for the author is not known, then the work is in the public domain if the work was created before 1885. This often requires research to determine. Copyright lawyers make good money looking stuff like this up.

To make things more complicated, if an image was first published after 1923, the copyright might have expired anyway under certain circumstances (although it's unlikely). And remember that if the copyright has expired, that means the image is PD. Here are the official exceptions as to why an image's copyright might have expired, even if it was first published in the U.S. after 1923:
But those are rare exceptions. Failure to properly renew copyright is the reason that, for instance, the movie Arsenic and Old Lace is in the Public Domain, even though it was released in 1944. But most of the time, if something was published after 1922, it's probably copyrighted.

All this refers to images published in the U.S. Different countries have different copyright laws. But I'll deal with this in another post.

I just found your blog and want to say thank you! What an enjoyable time looking
through so many pictures. Thanks for sharing.
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All information on this site is correct to the best I can determine; however, nothing on this page should be construed as legal advice, and I cannot be liable for any damages if this information is inadvertantly incorrect.