Friday, 23 May 2014

Copyright or Copywrong

It is said that there are 2 types of Photographers when it comes to copyright.

Those who are afraid their Photographs will be stolen, and those who are afraid that they won't

In that light this blog looks at copyright of photography, who owns it and when it expires.

Those who have been following my blogs know that one of my photographic hobbies is rephotography. This involves taking an old photograph, taking a modern photo from the same spot and overlaying the two together.

Up till recently I had not given much thought about the copyrights of the photo involved. It is not  because I was deliberately ignoring it or trespassing on another photographers rights. It was because

a) the photos were in most cases over 100 years old
b)  I was not using them to make money but to create a derivative work.

I therefore assumed that I was doing nothing wrong copyright wise.

However I had a run-in with copyright as explained in this blog which made me think a lot about copyright law and many of the common misconceptions

I guess here we must add the usual advisory note here. I am only here concentrating on UK copyright law. Other countries may ,and most probably do, have different laws. Also this is not legal advice. I have no legal training nor desire to get any. This is based on minimal research and understanding. If you have a copyright issues, please see a lawyer (but take a large check book)

Anyway you have in your possession a old photo and you wish to use it in some way. How do you assess its copyright status. This is not clear, so in an attempt to clarify some of the issues I have put together a simple flowchart to help your deliberations.

Original information from

You see it's simple. To work out if a photo is out of copyright you need to find the following pieces of information:-

  • When the photo was taken
  • Who by
  • Are they still alive? If not when did they die.
  • Was it published and if so when. 
Once you have gained this information and gone through the above flowchart, you are now in a position to assess whether a photo is out of copyright.

If you think this is a bit over the top, then join the club.

Now in my previous blog, it may seem I was a bit anti-copyright. This is not true. I can see the point of it when it comes to stopping some poor photographer having his labours ripped off by big corp. But the lengths of time of copyright seems out of proportion to it's benefit. Yes, artists must benefit for their work, but for 70 years?

Put it like this. As a software developer I write code, which could be considered creative works. I am sure there is code running around I wrote 30 years ago still in use. However I am not expecting that I will get a check through the post every time someone uses my software for the next 40 years.

There is also an important point about copyright that is easily forgotten. It is called a right, which makes it sound like something the state protects you against. But there is no government agency for collecting royalties, sorting disputes and policing transgressions. If you feel your copyright has been trampled on, your only remit is to sue, with the cost and pressure associated with it.

In some ways this makes a mockery of the whole law. We may worry about our work being stolen (Can a digital photo be stolen? Surely stealing indicates that you have deprived someone of its use), but at the end of the day it is unlikely you will ever do anything about it. In the meantime there is a law that restricts the creative process and provides undue influence and power to those with the resources to employ armies of lawyers (Although firms like Getty's have started to bow to the inevitable and made a lot of there photo's available royalty free)

In a digital age, where art is now so fleeting and virtual, copyright law feels like something from a by-gone time, a bit like restricting grazing rights for your cows. There is nothing worse than a law that does not protect those it sets out to, other than a law that provides power to those with money and the ability to wield it.

Some links to information I used on this blog.

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