Determining publication status on photos

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  • Hi all, 

    Photographs have come up a few times before in the forum, but I'm not seeing the exact topic/answer I'm hoping for. 

    I struggle with determing if historic photos are published or unpublished. Per the current photograph copyright registration guidelines: "For copyright purposes, a photograph is published on the specific month, day, and year that a copy or multiple copies of that work are distributed to the public for the first time. A photograph is also published when copies of that work are offered to a group of persons for the first time for purposes of further distribution or public display. The public display of a photograph, in and of itself, does not constitute publication."

    Other circulars on publication status in general talk about limited distribution vs wide distribution/distribution to the public being part of the determination. 

    If it seems like the photos in question were likely acquired via sale to a small group of people- does that count as published photos? I'm working with photographs of a play's cast. They're group photos of them posing in costume. The cast are students at a college. The photos are pre 1924, but post 1900- so they're copyright status depends on if they are published or not. (since I don't know who the photographer is and therefore don't know their death date). I am working with photograhic prints, not negatives. 

    What do y'all think? Would you assume these would likely count as published since at least one copy was distributed "to the public" ? Do the cast members alone count as the public? (the prints I have were previously owned by cast members photographed)

    If they count as published- well then, there's no copyright notice on the prints, so they're no longer in copyright based on the dates. I've only ever seen one photographic print with a copyright notice on it- in an entirely different situation. Overall, I remain somewhat puzzled on determining if a photogrpah is published or not-  unless it's printed in a publication like a newspaper, journal, or book. 

    Any help you can give is appreciated. For reference, these are the resources I've already consulted:

  • Photographers themselves have trouble determining if their photos are published or not (true!) I think the definistion in the circular is the best thing to go by.  Do we know if the photos were meant for publicity purposes?  If so, then I would say they are published.  If they were just meant for the small group of actors, I would say unpublished because photos were not distributed or displayed to the public.   This is complicated.  Have you checked the Compendium - I know there is a section on photographs. 



  • Thanks Carrie! I did check the compendium, I should have included that in my list. I didn't find it incredibly helpful in terms of determining publication status, but still good info of course. 

    Thank you for your help!

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