Who owns the photos in a school or university yearbook?

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  • We get this question often at my university, but it probably applies to schools as well. People want to make a copy of a photo, of either a person or a scene, from a yearbook. Sometimes it's for a funeral/memorial program, or it might be for a news story. But it's impossible to track down individuals from long ago, whether the subject of the photo or the potential photographer (who usually isn't even listed). Does the academic institution own the rights? Can we give permissions for us? If so, who at an institution would give these rights? 

  • If you have the yearbook in hand, I would first look for any publishing information.  My guess would be that the institution would hold the rights.  I would also guess that the photographer does not hold the copyright because she was hired for the work, forfeiting copyright to the institutition.

    However I imagine that the institution when contacted would not be sure whether or not they could give permission.  If your use is not fair use, you could document your search for the rights holder and go ahead and use the photo.

    But I also see this as a low risk.  Certainly fair if the photo is used for a memorial or funeral, and even a obituary.  With this sort of issue, I would tend to use the photo because the social value of the use far outweighs any harm to the rights holder.  I would cite the publication in which the photo was found if that is possible.  Probably not the norm for obituary listings.  


    Hope that helps!

    -Carrie Russell


  • I agree with Carrie. Fair use can definitely be considered for the scenarios you’ve outlined above. Checking to see if there is a copyright notice on the yearbook and/or publishing info could be a good place to start if you feel that you really need permission for the use.

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