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Sometimes when I purchase vintage film equipment from auctions, estates, etc., the cameras or boxes contain old 8mm or 16mm film reels shot by an amateur from decades ago prior to video. No photographer or owner is identified on them and are original positive footage, not negative, therefore most likely no other copies exist. Most of the footage is of landmarks, cityscapes or wide shots of people that cannot be positively identified.

Does the 75-year Copyright apply or because no ownership is known, does it fall under a different statute of limitations?

Shorter question: Can I legally use this footage professionally in projects or to digitally archive as retro stock footage for sale?

  • Is this US law? – D M Feb 26 '18 at 6:56
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Not necessarily. It's likely longer than 75 years.

First of all, the law you are probably thinking of was retroactively changed about 20 years ago. It's now 95 years instead of 75, for works published before 1978.

Second, the 95 year rule for old works is only for published works. Amateur videos are probably unpublished. Under US law, the copyright on unpublished works is either life + 70 for most works, or 120 years for anonymous/pseudonymous/corporate-made works.

If it is not known whether the author has been dead for 70 years, then according to 17 U.S. Code § 302(e), 120 years after the work has been created you can request a certified report from the copyright office regarding their records on the death of the author. If that report does not indicate that the author is alive or has died more recently than 70 years ago (and it seems very unlikely that they'd have any records in a case like this), you gain a presumption that the author has been dead for 70 years. Even if it later turns out that the author died more recently (or is somehow alive), "Reliance in good faith upon this presumption shall be a complete defense to any action for infringement under this title."

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