Copyright on Public Domain Art found in other sources.

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  • Okay, lets say that I have a burning desire to make it rich selling mouse pads of Mona Lisa, or any other art published/produced prior to 192x. (I must confess that I am assuming this art to be in the public domain so if I am incorrect, please correct me).

    I have a problem though, I don't own the Mona Lisa and until I make it rich with my mouse pads, I am not likely to be able to aford to buy this work. :) So, in order to make my mouse pad I would need to make a copy of this artwork from a book or some other source which might have a copyright.

    Can I freely copy, even for financial gain, artwork that is in the public domain even if it is found in a modern copyrighted source?
  • Can I freely copy, even for financial gain, artwork that is in the public domain even if it is found in a modern copyrighted source?
    I believe that what I am going to tell you is correct, but I am not 100% certain. I do not know enough to tell you if the Mona Lisa is in the public domain or not, but I believe it is. The 192X date you refer to is probably 1923 and applies to U.S. copyright law which has nothing to do with the Mona Lisa. A photo of a painting is not the same as a painting. The painting may be in the public domain, but a picture of that painting may not be. If you and I stand in front of the Mona Lisa and take pictures, our photos will not be the same. You can sell your picture but not mine. An art book may contain a copyright notice for each painting or for paintings that required special arrangements. However, I believe that, unless otherwise noted, the copyright holder of an art book is the copyright holder for the images contained within. Not the paintings themselves, just the photos of those images used in the preparation of the book. Some museums do not allow you to take pictures of their paintings or other artwork. They are under no obligation to let you take a picture even if the work is in the public domain. The same is true for literature. There are many versions of the classics. The actual text might be in the public domain, but the companies that produce the books maintain the copyright on their particular versions (the typeface, the page layout, the introduction). You can create and publish your own version as long as your version of the text is in the public domain, but you cannot photocopy one of the modern versions and then resell it as your own. If you need to use someone else's photo of the painting, you have a couple of options. You can obtain permission from the copyright holder of the image you wish to use. This may or may not include a licensing fee. Permission might not be granted. You could claim fair use. I don't have time to think about or discuss this in detail right now. However, my gut instinct is that your use is unfair. Even if it is fair, it is probably risky. If you'd like a more detailed discussion of fair use, which probably doesn't apply in your situation, let me know.
  • Thanks Alfred for your reply. I suspected that there might be issues along the lines of what you mentioned.

    I see so many books that use art from centuries past as filler or cover art. I am confident that these authors do not travel to see this art and take their own pictures so did they get permission for this or is this just a gray area where noone makes a big issue of it? Maybe there are companies out there that own and sell photos of historic art that I can purchase for comercial use. I will check.

    My application is not far off from what I described. I would like to use a few select pieces of 19th century artwork from Europe and make a few specialty mouse pads out of them. I would end up selling the mouse pads with some level of finanial return so I want to do things right. If others have delt with this, your perspectives would be valuable.
  • There are many classic books that use paintings from the same time period as cover art. Oxford Classics is one brand that does this. If you look on the back cover or on the page with the copyright information, you will almost always see a credit for the cover.

    I took a look at a few of these books to make sure.
    Most tell you the name of the painting, the artist, and the museum. The copyright symbol is not used because the art is in the public domain. However, I believe that the museums supplied the pictures to the publishers. In those cases, the museums own the artwork are getting credit, and probably payment, for it.

    I did see one book with all of that information but also included "Photo © Christie's." I suspect that the museum actually provided the picture, but they sent one that had been taken by the auction house. In any case, since the auction house doesn't own the painting, Christie's is wants to see a copyright notice.

    So, I think that the book publisher received permission from the museums in all cases and probably obtained photos from the museums. I'd be shocked if this didn't involve some payment, but that payment may be very small.

    Perhaps a clearinghouse exists to make this process easy. I hope someone who knows more than I will post here, but this board does not get a lot of traffic. You could also try emailing any major museum. I think that any museum that has a famous painting has probably received many requests like yours.

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