Awesome images, copyright-free

More images, free for use

So there was a discussion on Facebook yesterday about some fabulous photographs by a man named Timothy O’Sullivan that were published last year on the website of The Daily Mail, an English newspaper.

OSullivanThe article containing the photos, entitled “How the Wild West REALLY looked,”1 is beautifully illustrated with 34 photographs taken by O’Sullivan while accompanying Government expeditions — as well as by a photo of O’Sullivan himself.

The pictures are described as among “the first ever taken of the rocky and barren landscape” of the American west as it was during the second half of the 19th century.2

The person who originated the Facebook thread described the photographs as “incredible” and “awesome.” “I feel like I’m right there,” she said.3

Another mentioned he’d seen some of them before. “They are crisp and engaging,” he said. “These are a wonderful historical treasure!”4

And a third said they were “truly remarkable photos.”5

They are all absolutely right: these are stunning images.

And they may be even better for us as genealogists than the folks in that thread knew. Because there is one thing that’s just plain flat out totally wrong about the images as they appeared in The Daily Mail.

They are — wrongly — marked with a copyright symbol as part of this statement: “© Timothy O’Sullivan.”

And all The Legal Genealogist can say to that is… no, they’re not.

Oh, they might have been… once… maybe. That would depend on exactly what law was in effect at the time they were taken — the act of 18316 or the act of 18707 or, perhaps, even the act of 19098 as it related to O’Sullivan’s earlier work — and on what O’Sullivan did (or, more likely, didn’t) do to register his copyright.

But even under the most liberal reading of the most artist-friendly copyright law the United States has ever had, any copyright that may ever have existed on those images ended, at the latest, 70 years after O’Sullivan’s death.9

And Timothy O’Sullivan died in 1882.10

So any possible claim of copyright on O’Sullivan’s images is long gone. They can be used, reused, modified and republished, because they’re now in the public domain.11

And hundreds of them are available online.

Some are available in the Timothy H. O’Sullivan set of the Smithsonian Institution’s Flickr website. And the Smithsonian’s policy is that “Personal, educational and non-commercial use of digital images from our Web site is permitted, with attribution to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for all images unless otherwise noted.”12

Many more are available from the Library of Congress’ website, through its Prints and Photographs Division. There are, give or take a couple, somewhere around 1,100 images online at the Library of Congress website. Gorgeous landscapes, including all the images The Daily Mail published. And many Civil War photographs as well.

It was his Civil War photographs that first led me to O’Sullivan’s work. I was looking for an image to illustrate my blog post on “The ghosts of Gettysburg, 1863-2013,”13 and was blown away by the work done by the then-very young O’Sullivan. He was born in Ireland in 1840, was just 21 when he began working with Matthew Brady to document the Civil War on film, and was just 42 when he died of tuberculosis.14

And, of course, I was just delighted to find his work at the Library of Congress website because, there, not only are all of them free of copyright restrictions, they’re also free of terms-of-use restrictions. That’s because the Library of Congress’s rules are essentially these: (1) don’t violate anybody’s copyright; (2) don’t invade the privacy of individuals whose information might be found in the Library materials; and (3) don’t mess with the Library’s website itself.15

“A wonderful historical treasure”? Absolutely.

And free for us to use in our genealogies.


SOURCES

Image: Timothy O’Sullivan, “Buttes near Green River City, Wyoming” (c1872); digital image, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov : accessed 15 Aug 2013).

  1. Rob Cooper, “How the Wild West REALLY looked,” The Daily Mail, online edition, posted 25 May 2012 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news : accessed 15 Aug 2013).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt, status update, 15 Aug 2013, Facebook (http://www.facebook.com : accessed 15 Aug 2013).
  4. Ibid., comment by George G. Morgan.
  5. Ibid., comment by Billie Stone Fogarty.
  6. An Act to amend the several acts respecting copy rights, 4 Stat. 436 (3 Feb 1831); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 15 Aug 2013).
  7. Ibid.,“ An Act to revise, consolidate, and amend the Statutes relating to Patents and Copyrights,” 16 Stat. 198 (8 July 1870).
  8. “An act to amend and consolidate the acts respecting copyright,” 35 Stat. 1075 (4 Mar 1909).
  9. See today’s copyright law, 17 U.S.C. §301(a) (“Copyright … endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death”).
  10. St. Peter’s Cemetery, Richmond County, New York, Timothy H. O’Sullivan memorial; Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 15 Aug 2013).
  11. See generally “Where is the public domain?,” Frequently Asked Questions: Definitions, U.S. Copyright Office (http://www.copyright.gov : accessed 15 Aug 2013).
  12. Collections: Rights and Reproductions,” Smithsonian American Art Museum (http://americanart.si.edu : accessed 15 Aug 2013).
  13. Judy G. Russell, “The ghosts of Gettysburg, 1863-2013,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Jul 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 15 Aug 2013).
  14. See “The Photography of Timothy H. O’Sullivan,” video, Smithsonian.com (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 15 Aug 2013).
  15. Judy G. Russell, “Library of Congress terms of use,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 Jul 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 21 Feb 2013).
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4 Responses to Awesome images, copyright-free

  1. Kat says:

    Enjoyed reading about Timothy O’Sullivan’s photos. I was reminded of a program on Book TV about “The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States” by John Guntzelman. Mr. Guntzelman obtained public-domain photos for his book from the Library of Congress – don’t know if any were made by O’Sullivan. He cleaned up the images and colorized them.
    Disclaimer: I have no connection to Mr. Guntzelman nor will I profit from sales of this book.

  2. John H says:

    Judy — Can you bequeath your copyright, effectively extending the legal copyright term ‘limit’?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s two questions, John: can you bequeath your copyright, and does that effectively extend the legal copyright term? The answer to the first is yes. A copyright is property and can be left to someone in your will (and will pass by intestacy rules if you don’t have a will or don’t identify a beneficiary in your will, such as by a residuary clause). But the answer to the second one is no: the term is limited by the life of the creator, not the copyright owner. So the person or persons who inherit your copyright will still only have it for 70 years after your death. (“Only” and “70 years after your death” don’t seem like they ought to go together in one sentence, do they?)

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