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Museum copyrights on old photos

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If a museum has collections of old photos, say from the 1930s, and they offer files and prints, but insist they have copyrights and want to control usage, how valid is that? In most cases I suspect the photos were donated and the museum paid nothing, nor did they make any arrangements with the estate of the long gone photographers. Does anybody know how this works?

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It doesn't matter how the museum got the photographs and if money changed hands. Copyright exists regardless.

Copyright is usually defined by life of creator + XX years. (70 in the country I live in): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries'_copyright_lengths

It is very possible that a photograph from the 30's is protected. For example; if the photographer died in the 1970's the work will be protected into 2040's

Museums cannot collect copyright fees unless they are assigned that role. In some cases, the rights may have been donated to the museum along with the photograph.

If the copyright protection time has expired, there is no copyright anymore, but the museum may try to control access to limit people copying the work.

Edited by Niels - NHSN
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One museum I remember required a free permit for non-commercial photography.

I was asked about it when my coat covered the permit.

I suspect that means I agreed to non-commercial use when I fill out the permit form.

Also, many say "no flash", which is usually fine.   But that is for visitors.


If you are asking about selling copies of photographs, they might be able

to claim copyright on those.  That is, not on the original work, but just

on their copy of it.  One could copyright a collection of photographs,

even without copyright of them individually. 

-- glen

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