Public Domain Images

I am working on a magazine for a client. I am responsible for all of the images in the publication. One of the articles talks about two inventors: one from the 1920s and one from the 1960s. I can find images of the 1920s inventor that are listed as public domain. When I search for images of the 1960s inventor, I can’t find any images that are specifically listed as public domain. However, there is one particular portrait and illustration of the invention that shows up all over the place, but I can’t find anything saying these images are public domain. They don’t even show up in the Library of Congress. It sure seems like they are public domain, but I don’t want to be the one on the hook should someone question the client’s use of the images. Any thoughts?

Is the 60s inventor still alive?
If not, is there an estate that can be contacted? A repository of his work?
Failing to find provenance on the portrait and illustration, I’d start checking where they worked, taught, or newspaper sources for other imagery perhaps.

If you want to PM the name, I can check some of my resources.

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Thanks. Will do.

I was in a similar position many years ago.

The CEO saw an image and wanted to use it, and just said to scan it and use for the cover… I was like - eh no.

So I dug about and found the image, from a photographer in the 40’s who’s work was largely unknown, but I traced the image roots and found it in the National Library

When I contacted them - they were able to find the image, which was actually on glass. And they kindly printed and digitized the image for me free of charge with full usage rights.

Do you have a national library you can call on?

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Most newspapers keep a copy of every photo they’ve ever run. Daily newspapers typically have an entire library staff assigned to categorize and file photos. If this inventor was famous or reasonably well-known in, for example, a home city, there’s a good chance the regional or metro paper in that area will have a print from the 1960s. They typically only charge a few dollars for copies of their photos.

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Sometimes it isn’t that easy any more. Older articles will probably be behind a paywall just to get the source info. Then at least $25 for an archivist to dig it up and email it to you. At least it was last time I did this, which has been a while. Just looking now for Steve-o, I discovered I no longer have free access to several older search resources.

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Thanks for the suggestion, everyone. You’ve given me a few more avenues to pursue.

@Smurf2 We have the Library of Congress in the U.S. which, oddly enough, didn’t have anything on the person I’m looking for.

Steve—I could be wrong but It is my understanding that any image can be used for a news article. It is only for other commercial use that licenses are required.

I nearly mentioned that too, but Steve didn’t say what kind of magazine he’s working on.

From my years at the newspaper Salt Lake, here’s what I remember of the rules. In journalism, fair use enables the use of copyrighted excerpts and photos if they’re used as supporting material that adds information to the reporting of news stories or the analysis of newsworthy or cultural material that benefits the public. It’s also permissible when the photo adds to a historical subject’s analysis or informative context.

Here’s an example from personal experience.

I designed the newspaper’s front page when the International Olympics Committee (IOC) announced the city would host the 2002 Winter Olympics. I ran the Olympics rings logo across the top of the page. The next day, IOC threatened to sue. The newspaper’s attorneys countered their threat by claiming First Amendment freedom of the press rights to use the Olympics logo as part of a news story about the Olympics. The IOC backed down because they knew they wouldn’t win a lawsuit.

At the Olympics’ conclusion, I put together a coffee table book for the newspaper showing off the photos the newspaper’s photographers had taken of the games. Since the book wasn’t especially newsy or an analysis or a historical treatment, our lawyers told us we shouldn’t use the Olympics logo in the book except when it appeared in the background of a photo. We couldn’t even use the word Olympics in the book since it’s a registered trademark. We substituted the wording “2002 Winter Games.”

The whole subject has fuzzy boundaries. The more newsy a story is, the more latitude there is in using copyrighted supporting material. With a newspaper, it’s pretty clear-cut. In a news magazine, it would also be reasonably straightforward. In a feature magazine, it gets muddy — context matters, along with the publication’s willingness to take chances.

I’m not an attorney, of course, but these were pretty much the operating rules at the newspaper at the time.

Thanks everyone for your input. I have a solution. It is not ideal, but it avoids the risk of infringing anyone’s potential copyright.

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