Copyright and Family Photos

By Andrew Hudson Published: November 6, 2013 Updated: November 20, 2016

Family photos taken after 1893 have copyright protection for the life of the photographer plus 70 years. When the photographer is not known, the protection is for 120 years from date of creation. Photos taken before 1893 have no copyright protection and are in the public domain. (This is under U.S. law and assumes that photos prior to 1978 were not published.)

Under U.S. Copyright Law, works created in the U.S. before January 1, 1978 but not published or registered by that date are protected by copyright for the life of the creator plus 70 years. Works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978 are protected for the creator’s life plus 70 years. See U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1 “Copyright Basics”

“Copyright in a work created on or after January 1, 1978, subsists from its creation and, except as provided by the following subsections, endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death.”
17 USC § 302

Copyright ownership by will

“Ownership of a copyright … may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession.”
17 U.S.C. § 202(d)(1)

Published Works

“Publication is the distribution of copies … of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”
17 U.S.C. § 101

“A public … display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.”
17 U.S.C. § 101

How can a Historical Society charge for usage?

“Even if the item is in the public domain, it’s a one-of-a-kind historical item, so physical ownership entitles the repository to charge a user’s fee. The same goes for historical photos in online databases.”
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Family Tree Magazine

Will I be sued?

“The risk of being sued for copyright of ‘orphaned’ works is typically quite small. Because they were probably never registered, they would have to first register them (submitting their own originals), then prove that they legally own the title to the copyrights, then prove you infringed their rights, then prove that your infringement has somehow caused them ‘damages.’”

“Lawyers often send letters warning of copyright infringement, but in reality few lawsuits are commenced.”
— Steven P. Aggergaard, Attorney at Law, Media Law Minnesota

“You own a copyright as soon as you create something. The main reason for registering a copyright is to make it easier to sue someone for copyright infringement and to actually seek and receive monetary damages.”
— Steven P. Aggergaard, Attorney at Law, Media Law Minnesota

From the U.S. Library of Congress:

The Library is unaware of any lawsuits involving the use of its historical images.

The Library is aware of a few cases where a user was told by someone claiming to hold the rights to images in the Library’s collections to “cease and desist” publication of the images. When the users requested proof of rights ownership, however, the matter was dropped.

To establish a prima facie case of copyright infringement, the plaintiff must prove “ownership” of copyrighted material and “copying” by the defendant. (Norma Ribbon & Trimming, Inc. v. Little, 51 F.3d 45, 47 (5th Cir. 1995) (citing Lakedreams v. Taylor, 932 F.2d 1103, 1107 (5th Cir.1991). A plaintiff establishes “ownership” by demonstrating that the material is “copyrightable” and that he complied with the statutory requirements in securing the copyright. Central Point Software, Inc. v. Nugent, 903 F.Supp. 1057, 1057 (E.D. Tex. I995).

If it is difficult for you to find a rights holder after employing due diligence, it ought to be equally difficult for a claimant to show that a copyright had been secured.

U.S. Library of Congress

Public Domain

Main article: Public Domain

A photo does not have copyright when the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright, or the term of copyright for the work has expired. A photo that has no copyright is said to be in the “public domain” and can be used by anyone.

Published before 19231In public domainNone
Published from 19231 – 1963When published with notice228 years+could be renewed for 47 years, now extended by 20 years for a total renewal of 67 years. If not so renewed, now in public domain
Published from 1964 – 1977When published with notice28 years for first term; now automatic extension of 67 years for second term
Created before 1978 but not published1-1-78, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyrightLife+70 years or 12-31-2002, whichever is greater
Created before 1978 but published after 19781-1-78, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyrightLife+70 years or 12-31-2047 whichever is greater
Created after 1978When work is fixed in tangible medium of expressionLife+70 years3 (or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation4

Source: Lolly Gasaway, University of North Carolina, Nov 4 2003


  1. Note: The 1923 date will change in 2018 to year-95.
  2. Under the 1909 Act, works published without notice went into the public domain upon publication. Works published without notice between 1-1-78 and 3-1-89, effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act, retained copyright only if efforts to correct the accidental omission of notice was made within five years, such as by placing notice on unsold copies. 17 U.S.C. § 405.
  3. Term of joint works is measured by life of the longest-lived author.
  4. Works for hire, anonymous and pseudonymous works also have this term. 17 U.S.C. § 302(c).

Notes courtesy of Professor Tom Field, Franklin Pierce Law Center and Lolly Gasaway

Foreign Works

For use within the United States, the following guidelines apply:

  • Works published outside the United States before July 1, 1909 are considered to be in the public domain. [Fishman chapter 18.12 and 18.15] (per Library of Congress)
  • Works published outside the U.S. with a U.S. Copyright notice before 1923 are considered to be in the public domain. [Fishman, chapter 18.13 and 18.15] (per Library of Congress)
  • Works made by the government of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) and published more than 50 years ago are considered to be in the public domain. [Schultz, p. 219; U.K. Office of Public Sector Information, (per Library of Congress)


“Pictures can fall into a murky area where they may or may not be copyrighted. These situations are perilous to the user, and vexing to the picture researcher or permissions researcher who must try to assure the publisher that he owns the legal right to reproduce. When copyright is unknown or ambiguous, publishers have to make calculated risk decisions.”
— John Schultz and Barbara Schultz, Picture Research: A Practical Guide, p. 216

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