Copyright law is sticky business. Determining whether a photo, painting, song, or other created piece falls within public domain depends upon the date the piece was made and whether copyright was renewed by the copyright holder. Copyright of a creative work is automatically assigned to the creator. The creator can assign the copyright of a work to another person, who can then renew the copyright as it expires. When copyright expires, the creative work becomes part of the public domain, which means that others can reproduce the piece for commercial gain.
Within the Photo Use Policy of the Morrison County Historical Society is a statement that reads: “If the copyright [of the photo] is still in effect, the publisher must seek permission from the creator of the work or his/her heirs. The Morrison County Historical Society will provide the creator’s name, if known.”
This means that anyone who wants to commercially reproduce a photograph from the Historical Society’s collections must find the copyright holder and ask permission to use the photo. The older a photo or other creative work gets, the more difficult it becomes to determine who, if anyone, owns the copyright.
I recently conducted a copyright search on two photo postcards from our collections. One was a black and white postcard showing early automobiles. The back of the postcard showed that the publisher was the Auburn Post Card Manufacturing Company of Auburn, Indiana. The photo was otherwise undated.
In copyright law, 1978 is a key year in determining the duration of copyright. If a work was created and/or published prior to 1978, the length of copyright is not as long as works produced after 1978. There were also strict rules for renewing copyright prior to 1978. The Auburn postcard was obviously created prior to 1978.
A search through the registered copyright database on the website of the United States Copyright Office produced no listing for the Auburn Post Card Manufacturing Company. The U.S. Copyright Office doesn’t guarantee searches through their website or by Copyright Office researchers. This means that a work may still be copyrighted, even if it doesn’t show up in the Copyright Office’s files. (This is because many people don’t register their works with the Copyright Office. Registration is not a requirement for copyright ownership. It does assist with legal issues raised if copyright is violated.)
Thus, I was forced to search for the Auburn Post Card Manufacturing Company elsewhere. Knowing that most states keep a business registry, I checked the Indiana Secretary of State’s website for current business entities. The Auburn Post Card Company was not listed. Next, I emailed the Indiana Historical Society to see if they could help. Suzanne Crowe, a Reference Librarian, responded. She said that the company started as the Witten-Dennison Post Card Company and moved from Maine to Auburn in 1910. In 1913, the name of the company was changed to the Auburn Post Card Manufacturing Company. In 1929, it became the Auburn Greeting Card Company. In 1933, D. E. Messenger bought the company and changed the name to the Messenger Corporation. Suzanne gave me a phone number to try.
Being a bit reluctant to use a phone number that might not be a sure bet, I decided to search the Internet for the Messenger Corporation. I found nothing, so I made the phone call. The receptionist, Ms. Leonard, told me that I had indeed reached the company that used to be called the Auburn Greeting Card Company. She asked someone about copyright on the photo and told me that we had permission to reproduce the postcard. (This just shows that you can’t depend on the Internet for all of your copyright research. Sometimes, you just have to take the plunge and make the call.)
The other postcard I conducted copyright research on was published by The L. L. Cook Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1952. I checked the U.S. Copyright Office for registration information on The L. L. Cook Company and once again, found nothing. Back to the state business registry I went. In Wisconsin the Department of Financial Institutions tracks registered corporations, rather than the Secretary of State’s Office. I checked their website and found a listing for The L. L. Cook Company. The listing showed that the company was dissolved in 1980. It also showed that the Registered Agent Office for the company was the C T Corporation System. In looking at the C T Corporation System’s business listing, I found that Roger Gierhart was the Registered Agent. An address was given for Mr. Gierhart, so using the ancient technology of the written letter, I mailed a request for assistance in determining who the copyright holder was for this postcard.
Mr. Gierhart’s secretary called after receiving the letter and said that he had no records to help me determine copyright. I have reached a dead-end in finding the copyright holder, so we do not have official permission to reproduce the postcard. Now what?
Prior to 1978, copyright on a work lasted for 28 years after it was published. For this 1952 postcard, the original copyright expired in 1980. Following strict rules, copyright could be renewed for an additional 28 years, if the copyright holder remembered to renew copyright within the 28th year. If not, the work fell into public domain. If the postcard copyright was renewed in a timely manner, the new expiration date is 2008.
Reproducing the postcard at this time is a judgment call. Because I could not find the copyright holder or a renewal with the U.S. Copyright Office, it is very likely that the copyright was not renewed and the postcard became public domain in 1980. If the copyright was renewed and we chose to commercially reproduce the postcard without the required permission, we would be in violation of copyright laws. Serious penalties could result. At this point, I would suggest waiting for the 2008 expiration date or continue searching for the copyright holder. These may not be popular suggestions, but they are certainly the safest.
For more information about copyright, contact the Library of Congress, Copyright Office, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, D.C. 20559-6000. The public information phone number is 202-707-3000. Their web address is www.copyright.gov.
by Mary Warner
Copyright 2002, Morrison County Historical Society
Addendum – October 13, 2015: Because we have had a number of requests for this, I have posted the notes I took while searching the copyright for the postcards discussed in this article. While MCHS was able to get permission to use a particular postcard from the L.L. Cook/Messenger Corporation, which is reflected within these documents, that does not mean that the copyright is completely open on L.L. Cook/Messenger Corporation postcards. If you want to use photo postcards from this company, you need to seek permission directly from the company. Contact info as of 2002 is within the notes. Using this, do an online search for up-to-date contact info. – MW
Searching Copyright Notes: postcards_copyright