METROPOSTCARD.COM Guide to Copyright Term in the U.S.
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Guide to Copyright Term
In the United States


(As of January 1st 2011)

Determining the copyright on early postcards can be a difficult to impossible task. Many cards do not list their date of publication or even have a publisher’s name on them. Nearly all the early publishers are now out of business with all records pertaining to ownership destroyed or missing. The copyright that appears on many cards was that of the photographer and not the publisher. Despite this most publishing houses kept no records as to who created the images they used. Some publishers routinely stole images so copyrighting them was never even considered. Registering a postcard for copyright was a tedious process at the beginning of the 20th century, one that most publishers never bothered with. Even the copyright renewal rate on books was only about 7 percent, so one should expect the number for postcards to be far less.

While an artist or photographer may hold the copyright to an image placed on a postcard, most were illustrated by staff artists or those hired for the job meaning that the copyright resides with the corporate publisher. While there is no longer anyone around to contest the ownership of many postcard images, many of the small studios that supplied photographs for cards were bought up by larger and larger photo stock companies over the years that continue to guard their exclusive rights. Other corporations will try to enforce exclusivity on items that have passed into public domain through threats of litigation. Transfer of ownership does not in itself constitute the conveyance of any rights regarding copyright. This must be done through contract.

The chart below is only to be used as a guide; it is not a substitute for legal advice. Copyright law can be complex and ever changing. Some large corporations have been given extensions on their copyrights, and copyright protection has sometimes been reinstated on work already in the public domain. There are even images which have been granted perpetual copyright. This guide has also been made only in reference to printed materials. Rules may vary for items created in other mediums. If unsure about an issue when republishing an image, seek professional advice. Certified reports from the Copyright Office may be required to avoid liability from infringement.

Images can be reproduced without regard to copyright under the principal of Fair Use if it is done so solely for educational purposes and with no intention to realize profit.




Expiration of term on copyright is always at the end of the calendar year.


FOR UNPUBLISHED & UNREGISTERED POSTCARDS MADE IN THE U.S.

The mere fact that a postcard exists in printed form is an indication that it was published. There are however one of a kind handmade cards that must be treated as unpublished works of art.

The copyright for cards by known artists expires 70 years beyond the date of death.

The copyright for cards by anonymous artists, cards in corporate ownership, or where the date of death is unknown all expire 120 years from the date it was created.



FOR POSTCARDS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE U.S. WITH COPYRIGHT NOTICE

The presence of the word copyright or its symbol © on the back or front of a postcard is considered notice in the U.S.

1922 and earlier:
The copyright has expired on these cards and they have fallen into the public domain.

1923 through 1963:
Copyright is in effect for 95 years after first publication if the copyright is fully renewed. The first term of renewal is for 28 years and the second term of renewal is for 67 years. If not renewed then these cards fall into the public domain.

1964 through 1977:
Copyright is in effect for 95 years after publication. (renewal is automatic)

1978 to 2002:
If a card created before 1978 was self published within this period then the copyright expires 70 years beyond the date of death, or 95 years after first publication if the copyright is corporate owned but not before 2047. If a card created after 1978 was self published within this period then the copyright expires 70 years beyond the date of death, or 95 years after first publication if the copyright is corporate owned, or 120 years after it was created, whichever comes first.

After 2002:
Copyright is in effect for 70 years beyond the date of death, or 95 years after first publication if the copyright is corporate owned, or 120 years after it was created, whichever comes first.



FOR POSTCARDS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE U.S. WITHOUT COPYRIGHT NOTICE

The presence of the word copyright or its symbol © on the back or front of a postcard is considered notice in the U.S. Cards that were registered with the Copyright Office but had no notice placed on them may have fallen into the public domain for failure to obey regulations.

All cards published by the United States Government are within the public domain.

1989 and earlier:
All these cards have fallen into the public domain.

1978 to March 1st 1989:
If the card was first published without notice but it was registered within 5 years then the copyright is in effect 70 years beyond death if self published, or in effect for 95 years after first publication if the copyright is corporate owned, or 120 years from the date it was created, whichever comes first.

March 1st 1989 through 2002:
If a work created before 1978 was self published within this period then the copyright expires 70 years beyond death, or 95 years after first publication if the copyright is corporate owned but not before 2047. If a work created after 1978 was self published within this period then the copyright expires 70 years beyond death, or 95 years after first publication if the copyright is corporate owned, or 120 years after it was created, whichever comes first.

After 2002
Copyright is in effect for 70 years beyond death if self published, or in effect for 95 years after first publication, or 120 years after it was created if the copyright is corporate owned, whichever comes first. While copyright is now effective from the moment of creation, there is no basis for litigation against infringement if the card is not registered.



FOR POSTCARDS FIRST PUBLISHED OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES

Cards published both inside and outside the United States within 30 days of each other fall under U.S. copyright law.

June 30th 1909 and earlier:
All these cards have fallen into the public domain.

July 1st 1909 through 1922:
All these cards are in the public domain except in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, where the copyright is in effect for 70 years beyond death if self published or 120 years from date it was created if publisher is unknown and if the country of publication is not in compliance with U.S. copyright law. If the country of publication came into compliance with U.S. copyright law within this period, then copyright is in effect for 95 years after first publication.

1923 through 1977:
Copyright is in effect for 95 years after first publication if the country of publication is in compliance with U.S. copyright law. If not in compliance with U.S. copyright law, then the card is in the public domain except in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, where the copyright is in effect for 70 years beyond death if self published or 120 years from date it was created if publisher is unknown.

After 1978:
Copyright is in effect for 70 years beyond death if self published, or in effect for 95 years after first publication or 120 years from creation if the copyright is corporate owned and if the card is not in the public domain in the country of publication. If the card is in the public domain in the country of publication, then it is usually, but not always in the public domain in the U.S.

NOTE: There may be exceptions to these standard rules due to private negotiations, litigation, and countries who are non signatories to international agreements. Copyright is typically in effect for 50 years beyond death in Australia, Canada, Japan, and some non European Union nations of Eastern Europe. Some cards that have fallen into the public domain in the United States may still be copyrighted in Germany. The Berne Convention regulating international copyright have only set universal definitions, not uniform expiration dates. The United States became a signatory of the treaty in 1989 but does not follow all of its stipulations.




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