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I'm designing a deck of card that will incorporate many British fashion plates from roughly 1790 to 1825. The magazines in which they were published have gone out of business long ago.

I am working with digital reproductions that I find online. They seem to be plain reproductions, unaltered in any way.

I can find U.S. copyright law, but nothing about using antique mass-market images created in Britain. Nor any information about U.S.-British mutual copyright agreements that focus on commercial images.

Thank you.

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    US copyright applies if you sell your cards in the US. UK copyright applies if you sell the cards in the UK. Japanese copyright applies if you sell the cards in Japan. But no country as far as I'm aware grants copyright for longer than 70 years after the death of the author.
    – phoog
    Oct 25, 2022 at 23:41
  • @phoog unless you are a company, then you get 95 years from publication for company works.
    – Trish
    Oct 25, 2022 at 23:53

1 Answer 1

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Copyright always is global

When you make a new work, you gain copyright everywhere the Berne convention on copyright was signed, to the degree that country provides. That's in all but about 10 countries, among them Iran, Kongo and Somalia.

Now, the runtime of copyright is determined by two things: either the death of the author, in case it is with a natural person, or the publication of the company.

Public Domain?

The plates

Your plates are well over 120 years old and were most likely company-made. As a result, we have to look back... So let's see... oh, actually it's easy: they were published before 1927. That means they are automatically public domain. Even if they were unpublished, and without known author, they're out of copyright: they were created before 1902, so they are automatically in Public Domain.

Photographies of Plates?

A photograph of the plates creates its own copyright, akin to a translation of a text. However, it is more narrow. Depending on the artistic choices of the photographs, and who made the digital copy, copyright might or might not apply. If copyright applies, then only in the artistic choices of the photographer, e.g. specific lighting or how the pieces are mounted, a text belonging to the picture... Anything that adds to the original work has its own copyright.

As a reasonably safe example: the library of Congress and its employees would not hold copyright in a digital copy, as they are US government actors. Those copies are Public Domain.

It looks entirely different in museums: the MET catalog is copyrighted, despite the items in it being at times thousands of years old. Those pictures are contextualized in the catalog of the collection with notes and such. The MET has a copyright on the collection and its texts.

But... as long as the photos are just mere reproductions with no artistic input no new copyright was created.

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  • Thank you for this thorough and clear answer. I appreciate it very much. Nov 19, 2022 at 23:44

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