Dear Rich: Trying to Clear Pre-1923 Artwork for Film

Dear Rich Old Films


Dear Rich: I work in the film industry and often experience frustration and confusion around the use of art work supposedly in the public domain. When I am trying to clear a piece of pre-1923 work (let’s say published in the U.S. for practical purposes) I am often told that the rule is 70 years after the death of the artist (or sometimes 100 years). Many works published before 1923 have authors and illustrators that died significantly later. Does the “work for hire” or commissioned work by a corporate entity rule come into play here? In other words, because the piece was commissioned (or written by an employee) does that make the creator’s copyright subject to the pre-1923 law?

Any work first published in the U.S. before 1923 is in the public domain regardless of the lifespan of the author or authors, and regardless whether it was made by an employee or contractor under work for hire principles. Only works published after 1977, or unpublished works, (or unpublished works that were later published) are contingent upon author lifespans. When in doubt, check this handy public domain chart, or download a copy of Steve Fishman’s excellent public domain book.


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About Rich Stim

Attorney Richard Stim specializes in small business, copyright, patents, and trademark issues at Nolo. He practices law in San Francisco and has represented photographers, software developers, craftspeople, publishers, musicians and toy designers. He is the author of many books, including Music Law: How to Run Your Band’s Business; Patent, Copyright & Trademark: An Intellectual Property Desk Reference; and Profit From Your Idea. Stim regularly answers readers’ intellectual property questions at Dear Rich: Nolo’s Patent, Copyright & Trademark Blog. Rich is also an author on Intellectual Property Law Firms. Stim also produces audiobooks, such as Nolo’s Crash Course in Small Business Basics, and performs and records with two bands, MX-80 and angel corpus christi. You can also find Rich on Google Plus.

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