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All the images in this site are believed to be either ‘Public Domain‘ or used according to ‘Fair Use – US‘ (or ‘Fair Dealing – UK / Australia) laws for reference and commentary.

If anyone has a legitimate copyright claim which is believed to be infringed upon, please let us know and we will remove all references to the image and take any necessary steps to bring things into compliance with current US Copyright Law.

More Copyright Information

Below is a synopsis of my current understanding about ‘Public Domain’ laws for reference.
I am not a lawyer so the below information should be understood to be my opinion only and subject to change.
For any further information, please contact a legal professional for usage rights for any artist works.
As a general guideline one can also reference https://guides.library.cornell.edu/copyright/publicdomain.

*If you are a lawyer or legal expert in the below discussion and wish to clarify or edit the below information, please contact us.

The images presented in this website come from various countries, including the United States, the UK and other European countries, and Australia and New Zealand. Each country has differing laws surrounding copyright durations and interpretations, and also international agreements which affect country specific laws. Below are listed general guidelines followed by specific considerations.

United States – Copyright duration is defined from date of publication, origination date of the image, or death date of the artist.

  • For published work (made publicly available via books, advertisements and similar), copyright protection lasts for 95 years from the date of publication. Copyright status dates are determined by the year of publication plus 95 years. As an example, a work published in 1900 would be public domain on January 1, 1996 (1900 + 95, i.e. copyright protected until December 31, 1995). In other words, published works from before 1928 are in the public domain as of January 1, 2023.
    • The original copyright duration for works created in the United States before 1977 was 28 years. During that time, copyright protection consisted of an initial term of 28 years, which could then be renewed for an additional 28 years if the copyright holder filed for renewal (US compliance). After 1978, the copyright term became the life of the artist plus an additional 50 years (ex. artist b. 1920 – d. 1980 + 50 yrs – copyright until 2020). For works created by a corporate author or anonymous works, the copyright term was set at 75 years from the date of first publication or 100 years from the date of creation, whichever expired first.
    • Art works published before 1928 are in the public domain.
    • Art works published between 1928 – 1977 are in the public domain if the copyright was not renewed, or the art was not under existing copyright protection in 1978 (where the Copyright Act of 1976 extended the protection according to the new legal definitions.)
  • For unpublished work where the artist is known, copyright protection lasts for 70 years past the death of the artist. As an example, work from an artist who died in 1900 would be public domain on January 1, 1971 (1900 + 70, i.e. copyright protected until December 31, 1970). In other words, unpublished works from artists who died before 1953 are in the public domain as of January 1, 2023.
  • For unpublished work where the artist is unknown, copyright protection lasts for 120 years past the origination date. As an example, a work from an unknown artist created in 1900 would be public domain on January 1, 2021 (1900 + 120, i.e. copyright protected until December 31, 2020). In other words, unpublished / unknown works from before 1903 are in the public domain as of January 1, 2023.

Reference-1 – https://guides.library.cornell.edu/copyright/publicdomain

Uk / Australia / (most of)  Europe – Copyright duration is generally defined from the death date of the artist, usually 70 years but can differ depending on specific country.  Date of publication and origination date of artwork are lesser considerations. Some countries have a longer (or shorter) period after the date of death of the artist; notable are Canada (50 yrs), New Zealand (50 yrs), Spain (80 yrs), Mexico (100 yrs).

  • For published work (made publicly available via books, advertisements and similar), copyright protection lasts for 70 years from the date of publication if artwork is owned by corporation, otherwise the death of the artist is the prevailing consideration.
  • For unpublished work where the artist is known the death of the artist plus 70 years is the prevailing consideration.
  • For unpublished work where the artist is unknown, copyright protection lasts for 120 years past the origination of the artwork if known, according to US copyright law.

Reference-1 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_law_of_the_European_Union

Notes  – in comparison, the laws defined by the US and Europe both overlap, but also can present some interpretive challenges. For a work to be fully considered public domain, it needs to fit both primary definitions from both schools of law (US and European Union). For instance, generally speaking, if an artist died 70 years ago, and a work was published either in the US or anywhere is the world 95 years ago, the artwork is in the public domain. It has met both legal definitions for both the European Union and the United States.

If one but not the other definitions are. not met, then there is some legal disconnect in terms of international copyright law. A couple of examples follow for consideration.

  1. An artist died in 1960, but published a piece of art in 1925 before their death. By US copyright law, it has been more than 95 years since publication, so is considered public domain (in the US), however European law will not consider the artwork public domain until 70 years after the artist death (2030) regardless of publication date.
  2. An artist died in 1950, but published a work shortly before death. By US copyright law, the work is still protected since it has not been 95 years since publication, however European law would consider the work public domain due to the death date of the artist.

The prevailing consideration is the ‘country of origin’. For example, if an artist was English and published an piece of artwork in 1925 but lived until 1960, the artwork is considered public domain in the US (95 years since original publication) but not public domain in the UK since it has not been 70 years since the death of the artist. According to some interpretations of international copyright agreements, the US copyright can be challenged due to the fact that the artist was English and the UK specific laws override the US copyright laws. This is a gray area of public domain laws.

Concluding Overview – Because of various interpretations of public domain law, rightly or wrongly, deciding to publish a piece of artwork considered public domain is a matter of ‘risk management’. Much artwork is clearly public domain, falling solidly within the definitions set forth by both the UK (as representative of most European countries, Australia and New Zealand), and the US, and these present little risk of copyright infringement. Lesser known art can present a greater risk level due to many possible factors (right and / or wrong). such as establishing the history of a piece, the lifespan of the artist and similar considerations.

‘The Fairy Tale of the Frog King’ (1891)
by Franz Stuck (1863–1928 German)

There is also another level of risk in a party claiming copyright (right and / or wrong). Regardless of the validity of the claim, it would necessitate a response and possible defense (legal). And example of this is found at this link, a piece of artwork (recently in the news) where the law, both in the US and UK, clearly defines the work as falling within the public domain, but there is an outstanding copyright claim regardless. This type of action can be mistaken, vindictive or predatory, (*note – the discussion about the copyright status has since been removed / resolved from the linked site and it is currently simply marked as public domain). This type of action is know as ‘Copyfraud‘, and common amongst public domain works. In short, the term refers to ‘overreaching copy right claims rights beyond what the law allows’. Publishers and museums are often the originators of these types of actions, as they may have underlying interests which may be contrary to the law. Also to note, such claims are unlawful, at least under US and Australian copyright law, but the laws are virtually unenforceable due to the twists and turns of current legalities.

There are many publishers selling public domain art, and the argument distills down to an acknowledgement of the public domain status of the artwork, but the payment for access to that artwork constitutes an contractual agreement which often limits how the artwork may be used. One example of how this can play out is illustrated in the lawsuit between Carol M. Highsmith vs. Getty Images / Alamy, where Highsmith donated her photography to the public domain and Getty / Alamy collected it and charged a fee for access, citing the service of distribution as its business and right to do so. The bottom line in these types of actions eventually step away from the public domain argument and end up with a discussion about ‘breach of contract’. Any purchase from these types of businesses constitutes a contract.

Another consideration is the application of the law. Consider the following scenario, where a piece of art or artist works are considered public domain in the US due to publishing guidelines, but not in Australia or the UK due to artist death date guidelines. In theory due to international copyright agreements, an entity in Australia or the UK could challenge the copyright status in the US – but that legal discussion would have to take place on US territory and according to US legal interpretation and representation., not a simple nor inexpensive undertaking.

One final consideration (there are more) is scale, meaning how extensive or egregious is the copyright violation and what rewards may be gained by enforcing copyright claim or defense. This is a two way door. For example, it is common for large entities to simply overpower lesser entities with available monies, whether the relative position is right or wrong. However a large entity has limited interest in seeking legal judgement against limited copyright infringement or questionable return from a lesser entity, or a minimal payment. The common, and often desired outcome is simply an out of court exchange of funds which sidesteps the legal expenses and settles the matter. So as mentioned, it is all a matter of risk tolerances, from a variety of vantage points.

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