The International Boundary Commission is a permanent international organization headed by two commissioners: a Canadian and an American. In 1924 it distributed to the public its Report, which contained many photographs that were its own work. The report contains no copyright notice.

The Commission's web site contains this paragraph:

Permission to reproduce Commission works, in part or in whole, and by any means, for personal or public non-commercial purposes, or for cost-recovery purposes, is not required, unless otherwise specified in the material you wish to reproduce.

I'm wondering about usability of these photographs in Wikipedia articles. As nearly as I understand it, Wikipedia's policy says works uploaded to Wikipedia that are not in the public domain must be subject to a license allowing anyone to use them subject only to the condition that authorship and copyright ownership must be acknowledged. Here is Wikipedia's policy on this.

  • Are any claims to copyright forfeited by public distribution without a copyright notice?
  • Would copyrights have expired?

PS: Here is the 512-page report.

Postscript on August 23, 2021: The one current answer does not seem to take into account that the U.S. federal government is not the author, but is merely one of the publishers, of this work (the International Boundary Commission is the author) and also does not explain how Canadian law does or does not apply here. That is why I have started a bounty here.


2 Answers 2


Wikipedia, at least the English-language edition of Wikipedia, takes the position that what applies to it is US copyright law. Under that law, anything published in 1924 is now in the public domain, and anything published first in the US, or simultaneously in the US and another country with no copyright notice prior to 1978 (the effective date of the 1976 Copyright Act) was never protected by copyright, but was in the public domain from the date of publication. See "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States".

Beyond that, the statement quotes would seem to be, in effect, a license permitting free but non-commercial use. That alone would not normally permit Wikipedia use, except under a claim of fair use. So Wikipedia use would be based on the date of publication, or the absence of a copyright notice, or both.

As a long-term Wikipedia editor, I am confident that the images described would be usable in Wikipedia articles. They might or might not be up-loadable to Wikimedia commons, but I think they would be.

The question of US Federal Government authorship is a distraction, this work would be in the public domain if the US Govt had no role in creating it.

  • The Commission statement is effectively a no-commercial-use license, which isn't acceptable on either Wikipedia or Commons. Fortunately, it doesn't apply to the 1924 Report.
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 1:44
  • @Mark quite correct, my error. I have corrected the answer. But the other factors remain. Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 1:48

Copyright notices were required in 1923 under US law. Under the Berne Convention simultaneously published works get the shortest protection. Also, the US government specificity does not claim copyright in its works.

The photos are public domain.

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    But might Canadian law also affect the matter? Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 21:09
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    @ohwilleke : I am skeptical of that statement. If the U.S. federal government is the AUTHOR of a work, then it's in the public domain, but if the U.S. government is the PUBLISHER, it doesn't: The government may buy a copyright and publish a work or it may publish a work with whose copyright owner the government has a contract. Those situations are not the same as the government being the AUTHOR and don't have the same effect. And PRINTING is not the same as publishing: publishing is distribution to the public. Besides, Canadian law may also be involved in this instance. Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 2:05
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    @DaleM : You are right that when the U.S. government is the author of a work, there is no copyright. But this is the work of an international organization, not of the U.S. government. That the U.S. government PRINTED it and PUBLISHED it (i.e. distributed it to the public) does not make the government the author, and the International Boundary Commission, as an international organization, is not the same as the U.S. government. And questions about Canadian law may also be involved. Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 2:07
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    @ohwilleke US government works are not defined by who printed them but by who prepared them (specifically "a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties"). It's not clear to me that this would apply here.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 21:20
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    The rule of the shorter term is optional, and Canada does not follow it with respect to US works. However, I agree with your analysis that it's definitely public domain in the US.
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 19:31

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