I buy a lot of old photos off of ebay. Most of these photos are photos of ships, and date back to the early 1900s or sooner. These are not photos taken by a professional photographer. These are one-of-a-kind photos that were taken by someone unknown, and the person who sold them to me is not a family member of the photographer. As the person who owns the actual photos, what are my rights? Do I own the copyright, and if I post them online, do people need permission from me to use them? Thanks.


The only way you could own the copyright (as a non-creator) is if you have purchased or inherited that right. You might have inherited the right to a photo taken by Aunt Tillie, but there would have to be an explicit transfer of ownership of the right from the former owner to you.

Failing that, the question is what the copyright status of the photo is. The first question is whose law you are dealing with: US? UK? France? Under US law, there is a higher probability that copyright has expired. Assume these are US photos. Then the next question is whether the photo was published: let's assume it was not (it if had been published that could work to your advantage because but you would have to prove that it was published). Then you must determine whether it was registered: again, assume it was not. The point is that copyright could have expired under certain conditions, under US law. Unregistered unpublished works are protected according to the provisions of §302 of US copyright law (as specified in §303), where the rule is "70 years after the author's death". Then you have to know when the author (photographer) died. If it was before 1949, the work is not protected by copyright.

In short, you have to know a lot of facts about a work, in order to be able to know whether it is still protected. This pamphlet by the US Copyright office explains the rules pertaining to copyright duration. This is relevant to the prior question of whether it is legal for you to post these pictures online.

  • 1
    The photos in the question are very likely in the public domain. The 70-year rule does not apply to works created before 1978. See also copyright.gov/pr/pdomain.html. – phoog Apr 16 '19 at 1:51

Assuming this is the USA, the copyright for those photographs would have lapsed at a maximum of the date of death of the original authors of the work + 70 years.

Of course, it is unlikely that anyone would ever come out and sue you arguing that they are the original author, or is the estate of the author. So I'd just go ahead and reproduce the works if you'd like

  • If the photo was published prior to the effective date of the 1976 Copyright Act, it gets a fixed term of 95 years from publication, although it might have lost copyright if published without notice before 1978 or through failure to renew if renewal was required before 1964. If unpublished, life+70 would apply. The 95 year term may be longer or shorter than the life+70 term, depending on when the author died. Any photo (or painting or other work) published in the US in 1924 or earlier is now PD, as are many published later with copyright not renewed. – David Siegel Apr 15 '19 at 18:49
  • @DavidSiegel what is the basis for your assertion that unpublished works created before 1978 are protected until 70 years after the death of the author? Have you seen copyright.gov/pr/pdomain.html? – phoog Apr 16 '19 at 1:53
  • @phog See copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain The first entry says: "Unpublished works: Life of the author + 70 years" The source you link to days the same: " works that were created but neither published nor registered before Jan. 1, 1978, ... acquired a statutory term of protection that was the life of the author plus 50 years, amended in 1998 to life plus 70 years." There was a special extension when this made the term very short, because the author died before 1927. That is now over. It included incentives for publication, now ended. – David Siegel Apr 17 '19 at 0:57

No, you don't own a copyright if you didn't take the pictures. You have to apply for a copyright, like a patent. It does not just come about because you own a picture. https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-register.html

  • 2
    You do not have to apply for copyright. – Ron Beyer Apr 15 '19 at 16:44
  • 1
    You can apply for one, but it isn't needed, all original works are automatically copyrighted. You don't need to apply for one to have one. copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#register – Ron Beyer Apr 15 '19 at 16:48
  • 2
    I don't see anywhere he is charging people, he bought the photo and is asking about posting it online. The original author would be the one who would need to register it, not the OP. – Ron Beyer Apr 15 '19 at 16:52
  • 1
    This is flat-out wrong "You have to apply for a copyright, like a patent. " has not been true since the US Joined the Berne Convention. Copyright registration is strictly optional, although it does grant some benefits. It is true that purchasing a photo does not mean purchasing the copyright, unless there is a written agreement explicitly transferring the copyright. – David Siegel Apr 15 '19 at 18:43
  • 1
    "Copyright exists automatically in an original work of authorship once it is fixed in a tangible medium, but a copyright owner can take steps to enhance the protections of copyright, the most important of which is registering the work. Although registering a work is not mandatory, for works of U.S. origin, registration (or refusal) is necessary to enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation." Copyright office circular 1 copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf OP is not asking about suing anyone, so no need to register first – David Siegel Apr 15 '19 at 18:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.