I'm writing a blog post related to the C programming language, and would like to illustrate it with this iconic photograph of Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie in front of a DEC PDP-11, but only if doing so is legal.

The above link is the closest I can find to a canonical source for the photograph, but it doesn't say anything about a license to use it. "Courtesy of Gwen Bell" suggests Gwen Bell may have given the Computer History Museum permission, but that doesn't mean that permission is extended to anyone else.

TinEye reverse image search finds many other uses around the Internet, but none of them say anything about a license either.

I suspect the answer is: yes, everyone except the Computer History Museum is technically breaking the law by using this photo, just counting on no one caring enough to make an issue of it. Is there anything I am missing?


Linking to the original version of the picture is an option. I had been reluctant to do it by default, because I've seen a lot of broken links created that way (when the original gets moved around), and some site owners object (they consider it theft of bandwidth). I did not know that copyright law distinguishes that case; that is interesting to know!

In this case, following Jen's suggestion, I contacted the Computer History Museum, and they graciously replied with explicit permission to use the image (with attribution, of course).

  • 1
    Did you miss "[Property of Lucent Technologies]"? Jan 28 at 16:58
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    and: Credit Courtesy of Gwen Bell
    – Trish
    Jan 28 at 17:00
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    Why not just link to it instead of copying it?
    – Barmar
    Jan 29 at 15:20
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    @Barmar Seems obvious - embedded images look good, better than a text link pointing to an image. If by "link to it" you mean "use an img tag with an appropriate src", that use is subject to copyright. Jan 29 at 23:54
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    @preferred_anon In the US, Hunley-Brauer v. Instagram determined that embedded images like this are not copyright violation. It doesn't make a copy of the image, it just tells the browser to fetch the image, just like it does when the embedded image is on the creator's site.
    – Barmar
    Jan 30 at 0:08

5 Answers 5


Standard investigation paths would involve contacting:

  • Gwen Bell
  • Gordon Bell
  • curators at the Computer History Museum
  • Nokia (as acquirer of Acetel-Lucent, former via a merger with Lucent)
  • Nokia Bell Labs (formerly Bell Labs, who held Lucent Technologies for some time and to whom copyright may have been transferred)
  • etc.

You can also search the Copyright Registry.

These are steps one can take to attempt to identify the copyright holder. But always beware: some people might not understand whether they actually hold the copyright, and some might purport to provide permission or a licence when they don't have the ability to do so.


I checked the Wikipedia article about Ken Thompson which shows a version of this picture. It appears to be the same room, equipment, etc. but a slightly different angle and positions of Ken and Dennis.

Clicking on that picture gets you to the Wikimedia page. Which is where it starts to get a little interesting. That page says it is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic, which as I understand it would allow use as OP described.

It is not clear to me exactly who made the picture and how it got there. The Wikimedia page says it was taken by Peter Hamer ~ 1970, but not really clear when/how it was licensed, as this CC licenses didn't exist in 1970, and it wasn't actually uploaded by Peter Hamer.

But an interesting additional point is a link on that page to a bell-labs web page which is written in the first person by Dennis Ritchie (or at least appears to be so) and even includes a link to a higher-resolution image.

Arguably simply referencing (i.e., with appropriate attribution) the image from Wikimedia should be a safe way to go, though in the world of intellectual property there are no guarantees.


Are you sure you need a licence?

It’s certain that someone owns the copyright in the photo, so to use it legally, you need their permission or your use needs to be fair use. This involves a four factor test:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

I’m not going to do the analysis for you; you or your lawyer need to do that, but if it is fair use, you don’t need permission.

Incidentally, it might be that, in the circumstances, the thanks to Gwen Bell might be for donating the physical photograph, not for licensing the copyright in it.

  • Illustrating a blog post is certainly not fair use, with a possible exception if the blog post is about the image itself. Illustrating a blog post about the C language with a picture of Thompson and Ritchie is not fair use. (I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice) Jan 31 at 12:34

If you're in the US, one case to look at might be Hunley v. Instagram, LLC. In this case, the Ninth Circuit court of appeals found that copyright is only violated when you host a copy of the photo on your own site. If you directly link to the image instead of making a copy on your own server, that is not considered a copy under the Copyright Act.


You're in luck: that photograph is from "circa 1970".

According to the Cornell chart of copyright terms, photographs from that era published in the United States were required to have a copyright notice in order to be copyrighted. This gives you two routes for determining the license.

  1. Find a copy that was definitely published before 1978 without a copyright notice. Unless this lack was due to something like a printer's error, the photograph is in the public domain for failure to comply with copyright formalities.
  2. Find a copy that was published with a copyright notice. This tells you who the copyright owner was, and gives you a starting point for chasing down the current owner and asking about a license.
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    I find your route "1" dubious at best. Just because someone else accidentally or on purpose prints a photo without permission and without the copyright notice can not make that photo free-for-all ever after. Do you mean "definitely published by the author"?
    – pipe
    Jan 29 at 10:03
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    @pipe, what do YOU mean by "definitely published by the author"? You used quotation marks, but those words don't appear in the answer. Not even a paraphrased version... Jan 30 at 0:22
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    @MichaelHall I think pipe's comment was meant to suggest changing "...that was definitively published before 1978..." to "...that was definitively published by the author before 1978...." The idea being to avoid a hypothetical scenario where the photo was originally copyrighted, was published by the author or someone with the author's permission before 1978 with a valid copyright notice attached, but somebody else copied the photo, removed the copyright notice, and published it elsewhere without having any legal right to do so.
    – David Z
    Jan 30 at 1:50
  • @pipe, if you want to be pedantic, yes, only authorized publications can void a copyright by not having a notice. But we're talking "1970s" here: publishing was a considerably more involved operation than it is now, and even putting that picture into something like your dorm newsletter requires spending time with scissors, tape, and a Xerox machine.
    – Mark
    Jan 30 at 4:04

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