Copyright & the newspaper article

Next in an occasional series on copyright — the newspaper article

Reader Aija Rahman has a collection of newspaper articles she’s put together. She wants to compile them into book form for her family and has copyright questions:

I’m researching my son-in-law’s great-great grandfather, Captain John Barneson,1 who was quite famous in the early 1900s. I have found over 800 newspaper articles about him and would like to compile the articles for my grandchildren and any other relatives who are interested. Can I legally copy the articles into a book form, such as through ? Are there copyright issues with reprinting the actual newspaper articles? The time span is 1890 to about 1941. … I do have other articles regarding Captain Barneson’s descendants, and those are all from the 1941 to 2011 time period. I would like to include some of them in anything I publish as well, so would appreciate knowing the copyright implications for that time period. There are also copies of ships logs from 1864 to 1900 from Australian sources ( and Australian newspapers of the period. Any idea about copyright issues from Australia?

Before we tackle these questions, I need to do my disclaimer bit again. Always remember that I’m commenting generally on the law here and not giving legal advice, and you may want to consult your own attorney, yadda yadda.

American newspapers

Now… before I begin… if you haven’t made his acquaintance before, I want to introduce you to Peter B. Hirtle. He’s an archivist and digital information expert at Cornell University. And he’s put a ton of information about all the possible time frames for materials either being under copyright or passing into the public domain together in chart form that you can find here.2 Great resource!!

The following explains in (I hope) plain English the time frames graphically shown on Hirtle’s wonderful chart for Aija’s newspaper article collection.

Fair game: in the public domain

There are undoubtedly bunches of these articles that are totally fair game because they’re already in the public domain. By definition, according to the U.S. Copyright Office, “A work of authorship is in the ’public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.”3

The articles you can use without worrying include:

     • Articles published before 1923. This is the easy case. Any news article published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain and you can reprint or republish it in any form you’d like without any copyright concerns at all.

     • Articles published between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice. For this time frame, if there wasn’t a copyright notice in the newspaper, it’s in the public domain. But you need to make sure there really wasn’t a notice. That means looking carefully at copies of the entire newspaper for at least a few dates at regular intervals during the period from which you want to use articles to see whether there is a copyright notice anywhere in the newspaper.

Caution: check before using

     • Articles published from 1923 through 1963 with a copyright notice but where the copyright was not renewed. An original copyright during this time frame lasted for 28 years. Longer protection — up to 67 more years — was available if the copyright was renewed by filing a renewal in the U.S. Copyright Office. So if there’s no renewal, then all of these articles are fair game — copyright protection would have expired at the latest in 1991. But before you can be sure you can use these safely, you have to be sure the copyright wasn’t renewed. For help on doing that, see the How to check copyright status section below.

     • Articles published between 1978 and 1 March 1989 without a copyright notice and not registered within five years of publication. These are fair game but only if both of these requirements are met. Even if there wasn’t a copyright notice, the newspaper might still have been registered with the copyright office within five years. Because of this five-year option, while it’s possible that these articles were fair game when published, it’s also possible that they’ll be copyright-protected well into the future. So before you can be sure you can use these safely, you have to be sure the copyright wasn’t registered in that five-year window. For help on doing that, see the How to check copyright status section below.

Only use with permission unless fair use

If an article does have copyright protection, then there are really only two ways that the law allows you to use it. The first is with the permission of the copyright owner. The second is if your use falls into the category of permitted uses called “fair use.”4 We’ll get into fair use at some point in this occasional series on copyright, but relying on the fair use doctrine is always a crap shoot.

Sure, you can do a risk-benefit analysis and decide that the publisher of a newspaper isn’t going to come after you for using a half-dozen articles from the 1980s. Some people firmly believe in the old saying that “it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” If you go that route, you’re on your own. Me, I think getting permission, especially for a small non-commercial family publication, is easier, and there’s no question that it’s safer by far.

Here are the key time periods where you need permission unless you’re confident that your use will be considered a fair use:

     • Articles published 1923 through 1963, with notice and with copyright renewal. For these, the total term for copyright protection — due to a number of amendments in the copyright law — is 95 years from the date of publication. An article published on 1 January 1924 in a newspaper published with a copyright notice and where the copyright was renewed would still be covered by copyright protection until 2019.

     • Articles published 1978 to 1 March 1989, without notice but with registration. If a newspaper didn’t put a copyright notice in the paper but registered for copyright protection within five years, it still has copyright protection. Most articles published in newspapers were written as works for hire (meaning written by an employee of the newspaper). The copyright term for these published articles is 95 years from publication. We’re talking many many years before any of these are public domain — 2073 at the earliest.

     • Articles published 1 March 1989 to present. These are all covered by copyright for 95 years after publication. Again, we’re talking many years before these are public domain — and some won’t go into the public domain until the 22nd century!

How to check copyright status

As noted above, there are a few categories where you need to check something beyond just the copy of the newspaper you’re working from to be sure whether it’s safe to use. With some, you need to find out if the copyright was registered; with others you need to find out if it was renewed.

So how do you find out what a newspaper’s copyright status is? There’s a circular available from the U.S. Copyright Office that explains it, called “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work.”5 The process is tedious, but it’s not hard. First off, check any available online databases. There’s a wonderful collection of sources for these databases here at the University of Pennsylvania Library’s Online Books Page. I can’t recommend it — and the UPenn site — enough.

If you can’t find what you need online, then you’ll have to find a library that has the Copyright Office’s Catalog of Copyright Entries6 for the years you want to check, but entering “Catalog of Copyright Entries” at a search term at turns up a lot of options. And there’s help available for this kind of search online at the UPenn site as well.7

Frankly, given the amount of work here with this many articles, I’d probably opt for taking an easier way: in your shoes, I’d write to the current publishers of the newspapers from which you collected the articles where you’re not sure. I’d explain exactly what I’m doing, the number of articles (broken down by year and month) that I wanted to include and ask (a) if they’re still under copyright protection and, if so, (b) whether I could have permission to include them in this privately-published collection for my family. That covers your bases either way.

Australian newspapers

Not surprisingly, copyright law in Australia is similar to United States law — there’s a treaty on free trade between the two countries that affected copyright protections.8 But the law is only similar, not identical. Under Australian law, as explained by the Australian Copyright Council (a non-governmental group that advises writers, photographers and others), any newspaper published before 1 January 1955 is out of copyright, since the copyright protection in effect at that time ran only for 50 years from the date of publication. A new law in effect in 2005 because of the treaty extends the protection to 70 years but that didn’t affect publication where the copyright had already expired.9

So for any article before 1955, it’s public domain. For anything after that, ask permission.

Australian government records

Here’s the big difference between the United States and Australia. In the United States, materials produced by the government can’t be copyrighted.10 In Australia, they can be and are copyright-protected.11 The specific ship manifests you’re dealing with are old records, but it isn’t clear under Australian law that the digital copies wouldn’t be considered copyright-protected. More importantly, the agency that now holds the records — the State Records Authority of New South Wales — wants you to ask for permission for anything beyond personal research or study, and says so on its website.12 Looks like it’s easy to get permission and free for non-commercial purposes, so that should be the least of your worries.



  1. Wikipedia (, “John Barneson,” rev. 15 Nov 2010.
  2. Peter B. Hirtle, “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States,” note 8, Cornell Copyright Information Center ( : accessed 18 Mar 2012).
  3. U.S. Copyright Office, “Definitions” ( : accessed 5 Mar 2012), “entry for public domain” (emphasis added).
  4. See generally 17 U.S.C. § 107. And see U.S. Copyright Office, “Fair Use” ( : accessed 18 Mar 2012).
  5. Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work, U.S. Copyright Office ( : accessed 18 Mar 2012).
  6. U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Catalog of Copyright Entries (Washington, D.C. : Govt. Printing Office, 1906-1898
  7. See e.g. “How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed?,” The Online Books Page, University of Pennsylvania Libraries ( : accessed 18 Mar 2012).
  8. See Australian Government, Attorney-General’s Department, “Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement – changes to Australian copyright law – March 2005” ( : accessed 18 Mar 2012).
  9. Australian Copyright Council, “Duration of Copyright” ( : accessed 18 Mar 2012).
  10. 17 U.S.C. § 105.
  11. See Australian Government, Attorney-General’s Department, “Commonwealth copyright” ( : accessed 18 Mar 2012).
  12. See Request for permission to use State archives.
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77 Responses to Copyright & the newspaper article

  1. Pingback: Resources on Blog Copyright and Content Theft | GeneaBloggers

  2. Clare Turncliff Gunning says:

    What if you found a newspaper article in the historic newspapers at the library of congress but this article was also available from genealogybank and they’ve got their “we own it” on the article you print out from them. This is an article originally printed in an 1808 newspaper and then it was reprinted in newspapers all through the northeast within a few months. I went looking at the library of congress to make sure it was available free and not exclusively from It’s such an interesting article about my 3 greats grandfather’s demise that I wanted to include it in our genealogy group newsletter.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Clare, that’s a terms-of-service issue, not a copyright issue. I have that on my list of things to write about in the future.

  3. Taneya says:

    thank you for this very informative article! It will be a great guide for many. I did want to share though that not everything published before 1923 is free of copyright. For example, the New York Times still holds copyright on all of their content, regardless of when it was published. I have also experienced this with a small town newspaper I have been indexing – though, that paper did give me permission to post the material online. In general, I recommend that if a newspaper is still in print, one checks with the publication to be sure it is appropriate to reproduce.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      No, there’s a difference between CLAIMING copyright and HOLDING copyright. If the item is out of copyright, it’s out of copyright, no matter what the publisher claims. I see that copyright notice on the NY Times articles pre-1923 as well. I don’t buy it.

  4. Celia Lewis says:

    Wow, another home-run, Judy! And thanks for the link to that pretty table of Copyright Term details as of Jan.1st/12. I appreciate being able to read/study and eventually wrap my head around all these copyright details. So many things to think about. Now I’m waiting breathlessly for the “fair use” article… Well, almost breathlessly. Cheers.

  5. Suzanne says:


    I have been working on a genealogy website for over a year now – it’s not up yet – and most of my content is pre 1923. I did not copy and paste anything – I retyped it for the website. My question is – pertaining to obits after 1923 – which I also retyped – I only used the facts and put them on a form-type document, listing name, age, place of death, etc. I DID list the newspaper in which I got the info from, so that if anyone wanted to get a hold of the original they would know where to get it. I was under the impression that facts could not be copyrighted. Is this correct? Thank you.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You are absolutely correct: facts can NOT be copyrighted. As long as you aren’t copying any of the creative aspects of an obit (“Mrs. Smith swooned when she got the news…” type of thing), and are just extracting plain facts into your own form, you should be just fine.

      • Suzanne says:

        Thank you – I have been hesitant to put my website out there without knowing for sure if I had infringed on someone’s copyright. You have no idea how much your answer means to me – hearing this from someone that knows what they are talking about! Thank you for your promptness and this website!

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Glad to help, and just to give you a little more comfort, here’s a direct quote from the U.S. Copyright Office: “Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”

  6. Donna says:

    I am writing a small book about an an event in the life of a family. There were a few newspaper articles about the journey of this family. The event happened in 1960 ,the articles were written the same year. The name of the paper was cut off for the scrapbook. Trying to locate the papers the articles appeared in; mostly small town newspapers. Some might be out of business- trying to find this out. The journal of the mother was typed in the paper word for word. I am using the same journal with the permission from the mom, age 89 who is still alive. Since it is the mother’s journal. I would think that would not be considered copy right infringement as it is her journal. Is this correct? Her journals, in letter form were sent to the local hardware so friends and family to keep track of their trip. The local paper also printed them in the paper to keep the town informed. Also is there a website where I could plug in a passage of the article to see if it is copy written? Book for family use, but they think they might want to sell a few copies at vendor shows. So I want to do this correctly, legally and also give credit where credit is due. Any advise would be most welcome.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You should be fine with the journal. As for the newspaper articles, they may be out of copyright but probably not. There’s no place that does a copyright check for you, but you might be able to plug in search terms from the text to locate the newspaper if it’s digitized at or Both are subscription sites. Checking the clippings with the local genealogy librarian may help you identify the newspaper as well.

  7. Good article, thanks for the information. This may have answered a question I put to you in another article. I write a free blog, if I retype the info it is okay but if I screen print the whole thing then it is “bad”. I don’t get it. I thought I was doing them a favor by printing their stuff (screen print) unaltered with their name and info right there for the entire world to see. I guess the more I learn about the subject the less I know about it. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Oops; do I have to cite who said that?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      if I retype the info it is okay but if I screen print the whole thing then it is “bad”. That’s not the test. The test is, how did you get the information you’re copying? If you got it from a copyrighted publication, and you’re copying it word for word (or even close to word for word), then you must pay attention to copyright. That means you either have permission to copy or your use is a fair use… or you’re at risk.

  8. Mplsfitz says:

    The newspapers copyright the entire edition as a collective work. A newspaper page, including layout, would be part of the collective work. Articles and photographs created by newspaper staff and all other media outlets (like AP) are copyrighted in addition to the collective work copyright.

    Some content published in newspapers since 1923 was and is created by authors not working for the newspaper or any media outlet. Examples for genealogists include: advertisements created by your family business especially sole proprietorships, classified advertisements written by a family member, obituaries or death notices written by a family member or a mortuary employee hired by your family, and letters to the editor. In these example, the content (e.g. words) belong to the creator/author.

    If the work was created before 1978 and if no there was no copyright application or renewal, then these items are likely already in the public domain. Cornell University has a helpful chart here:

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      All accurate — previously set out in various blog posts, but nice to have it repeated. One caution: in many cases, newspapers require that someone submitting something for publication relinquish copyright to the paper. More so in recent years than earlier, but something that should be checked.

  9. BornInaZoo (Bonnie K.) says:

    Thank you so much for this information. In October 1978 an article was published about my Mom & family as an insert for a newspaper that went out of business. I found a copy of the article yesterday while cleaning my basement & am the only one in our family that still posses one. I want to make copies for my family. I looked for a copyright notice and there was none. I did find a local address & looked it up. It’s where my city’s newspaper is published. I’m going there today (if they’re open on President’s day) and see if I can make or get permission to make copies.

    Not that it gives me permission to copy the article, but I do love that I have all of the original photos taken by the author/photographer. She sent them to my mom. The out-takes are great. There’s over 50 photos & 8 were used in the article.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That photographer gets special marks for giving your Mom the outtakes, Bonnie. What a wonderful thing to have. Sure hope the newspaper gives you permission to copy for your family.

      • BornInaZoo (Bonnie K.) says:

        I went to the newspaper office this morning. They don’t hold the copyright & the paper that published the article never filed a copyright.

  10. Pingback: Copyright research workflow | NELA Newspapers Pilot Project

  11. Pingback: Copyright research | NELA Newspapers Pilot Project

  12. Charlie Howard says:

    When newspaper articles and/or personal letters were read into Court Testimony in 1964, can the entire Transcript of such proceedings, including the possibly-copyrighted material, be reproduced without obtaining the permission of each copyright holder?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      GREAT question, Charlie, and still something of an open question right now until we see a written opinion of the judge throwing out a case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York called White v. West Publ. Corp., No. 12 Civ. 1340 (JSR) arguing that attorneys had copyright in things they wrote and filed with the court. The underlying issue here is much the same, though I suspect there would be more protection of items put into evidence by attorneys without the participation of the copyright holders than there is for items filed by the attorneys themselves. The Court granted summary judgment in favor of legal publishers months ago, but there’s no written opinion (and so no final judgment, and hence no appeal that can be taken) on the docket yet.

  13. Rod Kennedy says:

    I’m doing a narrative of a small rural village,pop.700 for most of these years, where I lived for the first 18years of my life. The narrative covers this time era: 1898 thru 1957. I’m drawing articles from the weekly newspaper thru these years. The newspaper is Enterprise (WI). For example, my first narrative was on the high school sports during this time period. Second, business narrative and third narrative is the public library and so forth. In the narrative process, I use articles written by the Enterprise newspaper, word for word. Generally, the writer is the editor(S),but not always. Please advise on the copywrite issue for using the exact articles. I’m reading your material.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Rod, there are a lot of variables here. You’re absolutely safe for anything published before 1923; it’s now public domain. For things published after 1923, the rules can be very complicated, so the safest way to proceed is to get permission from the newspaper.

    • Rod Kennedy says:

      thank you for your time. After reading some of your copyright articles, I have a better understanding and I plan to use some of your ideas. I did forget to mention that the newspaper, Enterprise, is no longer in existence.I do not know if the current weekly newspaper bought out the Enterprise. I plan to check with the current editor. Again, thank you. Happy New Year-2014

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        Ah yes. The orphan works problem. First step is to see if you can find out who bought the paper, if anyone. Otherwise, you have to go at this the long way, to see if the copyright was ever registered and if registered if it was renewed. Being “safe” here won’t be easy.

  14. Jeff Jahn says:

    Was wondering how copyrights work with subscription based sites that you subscribe too such as;; NewspaperArchive and such. If you subscribe to them and clip copies of articles and post on facebook or ancestry, would you be breaking the copyright. In other words what if any rights do you gain from subscribing to sites like this.

  15. Mark Schmidt says:

    A very interesting chain of discussion. Ok. Here’s my situation: I have written my autobiography for my grandkids and future generations and it will be published by a print on demand service.
    I want to use a series of about 50 different newspaper articles printed over the past 40 years that cover the the major themes of my personal story.
    The vast majority of the articles use my name directly.
    -One important article from 1970 is from the defunct Pittsburgh Press; since bought by the Post-Gazette. Do the the copyrights typically transfer to the new owner?
    -Does the fact that news articles contain substance of my own words, my own specific quotes, give me different status or permission to use the articles?
    -I have decided to try to make collages of headlines and partial articles both for effect and to keep from becoming tiresome….does that make any difference relative to copyright?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Copyrights are usually assets sold with the underlying company, yes. No, the fact that the articles are about you doesn’t change the copyright analysis. The use of only portions of the articles may make for a stronger fair use analysis than if you were using all of the articles.

      • Tucker Nelson says:

        What if a newspaper is completely defunct? I volunteer with a small local historical society that isn’t sure if it can post old newspaper articles (past 1923) on its new website.

  16. Brent Kloster says:

    Thank you for this helpful information. My question pertains to podcasting. I would like to start a podcast in which I read entire articles from newspapers printed during World War II. My intent is to get the flavor of the reporting from newspapers large and small all across the US during the war. Each episode would feature a different newspaper.

    Is the best way to be “safe” to research the copyright status of each individual paper? Also, if permission is required, is it granted verbally or in written form? Does the request have to be written (i.e. e-mail), or can it be done over the phone?


    Brent Kloster

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Brent, you’re right that doublechecking the copyright status of the individual newspapers is the safest way to go, but it could be quite time-consuming. You’ll probably find it faster and easier to just ask permission, and I would document each contact (even if you talk with someone by phone, asking for a confirming email is a good idea).

  17. Pratik Panchal says:

    Very informative. I have collected a large news cuttings from our local newspapers in Mumbai, India. I have prepared English language study material based on them for school going students. I wonder what copyright hurdles will I face when I put this material on my under-construction web-site.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re sure going to have to do your homework on the laws of India before you put them online.

  18. Lee says:

    In the 1960s/1970s our state library and archives undertook a major project to microfilm all of the newspapers and public records (deeds, etc.) in the state. I am using pre-1923 newspapers, that were microfilmed during that time. The reels indicate that the state filmed them and lists the date, but the reedls do not contain a copyright notice. These reels now exist at local libraries around the state and are used regularly for historical research. Does the state library and archives own a copyright on these microfilmed copies of the newspaper? Which date counts for copyright? The date the paper was published (pre-1923) or the date the state microfilmed it (1960/70)?

  19. Gersowitz Libo & Korek P.C says:

    Copyright law evolved a great deal during the last quarter of the 20th century, but civil litigation continues in the 21st because the U.S. Code Title 17 allows much subjectivity about what constitutes an outsider’s “fair use” of a newspaper’s work.

  20. Brian Chatters says:

    I am writing up a family history and I am considering publishing it. I have used transcripts of numerous newspaper articles to illustrate the book but they are all pre 1923 so I guess I am okay regarding copyright. However, there are a couple of issues that give me concern:
    What is the copyright situation regarding use of photos that appear in the papers? Some of the pictures that I would like to use have also appeared for sale on the internet (mainly eBay) although the photographer is unknown.
    Some of the pay sites on the internet allow free access (without registration – therefore, no contract) to transcripts of some papers. What is the legal position regarding copying the transcripts?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      (a) Photographs are covered by the same copyright rules as text: anything published in the United States before 1923 is now public domain. (b) Whether you can make use of information from pay sites depends on the terms of use of the particular sites. Those terms of use are effectively a contract between the site and you, and you are bound by whatever you agreed to by subscribing or using each site.

  21. Avril says:

    I am writing a small weekly article for a local newspaper to help homeless pets in need with a feature pet. I write the article (250 words) and submit a photo, sometimes mine, but other times they are from pro photos or other from people. Another person then edits it and submits it who oversee’s this weekly feature at the paper. I am not paid, which I am fine with, but they have not given credit to either me or the photographers, which I think is unfair and not particularly ethical. Is this legal for them to do? I am happy to volunteer my efforts but it would be nice to be acknowledged, especially so I could add it to my resume too. TY

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Forgive me for asking a basic question, but have you told them you expect your work and the photographers to be credited? Sometimes the local papers just don’t think to do that.

  22. Sumit Agarwal says:

    I want to publish news article on my website. Can I copy the photo and the article from renowned newspaper (Such as TOI, New York Times, etc.)and publish it on my website and at the end of article just give a citation or source from where I have taken the article. I have not obtained any permission from anybody. Thanks in advance for your kind reply

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Generally speaking, no, you can NOT do that without permission. Giving credit for the article (citing it or giving the source) does NOT protect you from a copyright infringement claim. Using a single news article or photo may be a fair use, but that’s a decision you have to make on your own.

  23. Sumit Agarwal says:


    I want to publish news on my website.Do I have to take up some legal rights or license for carrying out the same?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      In order to determine your own legal rights and obligations as an online publisher, you need to consult with a legal professional licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction.

  24. Anthony Pettifer says:

    Many thanks for a great thread. I am planning a blog (and maybe future book) on my grandparents, who were artists. I hope you could guide me on some further questions. They were born in Australia, but lived much of their lives in the USA and UK. I have newspaper and magazine articles from 1916 to 1981 that I would like to use in various ways. I have four questions:

    1. Does the 1923 public domain rule apply to publications in the UK and Canada as well as the USA and Australia?
    2. If the portraits they painted were printed as part of the article pre 1923, have the copyright on these portraits also become part of the public domain. (My Grandfather died in 1972 and Grandmother in 1985).
    3. One or two portraits were commissioned by magazines post 1923. I believe they have the copyright in such cases, but what about ones that were not e.g. portraits of my mother that are still in our family possession, but had been reproduced in papers/magazines pre and post 1923?
    4. For articles post 1923, where my grandparents are directly quoted in an article can I use their direct quotes without asking permission from the publications? (I would only use my grandparents’ own words and attribute that they came from such-and-such newspaper article)

    I hope I have not asked too many questions!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      (1) No, the 1923 date is US-specific. Copyright expiration dates are different from country to country and you should check the laws in the other countries. (2) The portraits are only in the public domain if the time for them has expired. The photographs published before 1923 are in the public domain. Meaning you can reproduce the black-and-white newsprint copies, not the original portraits, relying on publication alone. (3) Ownership of the portrait is not the same as ownership of the copyright. Make sure you do the research and know who owns your grandparents’ copyrights. (4) US law has a fair use provision that would allow you to quote small parts of published materials even if still in copyright. Read up on fair use rules and use your best judgment. And here’s an answer to a question you haven’t asked: (5) Yes, if you’re doing this much with potentially copyrighted materials, you should consult with a licensed professional in your jurisdiction. What you read online isn’t legal advice!

      • Anthony Pettifer says:

        Dear Judy

        Thanks for your very helpful reply. I read from an earlier response on this thread that Australian newspapers pre 1955 should be in public domain (and thus out of copyright). So I probably only need to check UK and Canada on their dates.

        Also I will take your #5 answer to heart. In many cases the portraits that are not in my family’s possession are in the possession of decedents of whoever commissioned them. In many cases I have the letters that refer to these commissions and the cost of the commission. It could be that a commission is considered “work for hire” so the copyright would not belong to the artist, even though in an old, unpublished book of photographs of such commissioned work my grandmother had written on the first page that the work shown in the book is her copyright. As you say I will need to take more legal advise.

        Again thank you, Anthony

  25. Anthony Pettifer says:

    Just as a clarification on point 2, while they were born in Australia in the late 19th century, they both died as UK citizens and are buried in the UK. (Although in addition to a UK passport my Grandmother had an Australian passport given her when in her 80s). Their heir was my mother (a UK citizen) and her heirs are myself and my two siblings, all UK citizens.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      With luck the original question-poster will see your comment, Anthony. Of course, where the subjects of the newspaper articles died and who their heirs were doesn’t affect the copyrights on the newspaper articles — the copyright holder would be the newspaper, not the person about whom the article was written.

      • Anthony Pettifer says:

        Many thanks Judy for your replay. If I may follow up with another question … does the reproduction of a work of art in a pre-1923 newspaper (not commissioned by the newspaper but shown as “news” in an article about the artist) become part of the public domain or is it just the words of the article that do?

        I see that my original comment (that had the four questions) is “awaiting moderation”. I am very interested in any comments on these four questions before I start my book

  26. Jess says:

    I just came upon this and am so glad you’re still responding! I’m a writer and not a genealogist but I really appreciate your clear explanations. This may have been covered by the microfilm question earlier, but I think it’s a little different – I’m wondering if I could actually publish the scans of newspaper articles if the articles themselves are out of copyright. (In this case it would be in a book, though I don’t know that the way the material is being used matters.) I’d rather use the pictures of the original newsprint than re-typed text, but could the scan itself (obviously made post-copyright laws) be considered a copyrighted image? Thank you!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If the original is out of copyright, then any copy produced by anyone else is also out of copyright. There may be contract issues but there shouldn’t be copyright issues. Of course, whenever you’re dealing with a commercial venture like publishing a book, remember that this isn’t legal advice, you need to consult with someone licensed in your jurisdiction, yadda yadda…

    • Jess says:

      Hopefully you see this before getting to my above question – it looks like you covered this in another article (“slavish copying” would definitely apply in this case). So I guess if there is a follow-up question it would be – if you know – would this also be the case in Australia? I will, however, keep looking around your site for myself. Thanks for your thorough coverage!

  27. Jess says:

    Well, I missed you, but thank you so much for the speedy reply! And yes, if it comes to actually publishing it will be a whole yadda-yadda process, but at least to start with I don’t have to worry the whole time that this is just straight up not going to be feasible to do. Have a great day!

  28. LG says:

    Hi Judi, wow my writing bubble just got burst lol.

    Can’t we just buy the right to use a newspaper article?

    I writing the biography of a friend and I wrote about events described in newspapers and I was going to include them at the end as proof of authentication to the stories. I’m guessing, not a good idea?

    So how does one write and proof to the readers that it’s a true story? Do old newspapers usually agreeable on letting writers use their articles?

    What’s the worst that could happen in the slim chance that my book becomes a best seller and I didn’t ask permission?

    I own nothing. So maybe a letter of cease and desist?

    Please advise.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Your use of a single article probably qualifies as a fair use assuming the newspaper is still under copyright. You can always cite an article even if you can’t republish it. And the worst that can happen if you violate copyright and the publisher sues? Statutory damages of up to $150,000.

  29. Julia says:

    About photographs. A local history group has an original photo that was taken in 1888. The photographer died in 1902. The history group has taken a digital pic of the photo and published on their website. I want to use the photo – or the digital pic in a book I am publishing about my family history. The history group is claiming copyright and wants to charge me a fee based on each copy of the book I print. They will not let me take my own digital pic of the original photo. Where do I stand?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      In the United States, this would be a matter of contract law, not copyright law: the copyright would have long since expired, and publication more than 70 years after the photographer’s death would not give the history group a copyright in the photograph — that would be in the public domain. In the US, however, contract law would apply: the history group owns the photo, so it can contract to allow access or not allow access on whatever terms it wants, whether in person or on its website, by its website terms of use.

      I notice that your email address is from Australia, however, and there the Copyright Act of 1968 has a fundamentally different provision: for works that were unpublished in the creator’s lifetime and then later published after the creator’s death, “the copyright in the work continues to subsist until the end of 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the work is first published.” It is not at all clear who would own that copyright — that would depend on how the history group acquired the photo, what rights it acquired and the like. But that is a wrinkle based on Australian law, and you’d be well advised to consult someone who can guide you on the nuances there.

  30. I want to use photos that have been published in nationally syndicated newspapers usually of politicians in the course of their governmental duties. But I am trying to make them humorous, comical, yadda, yadda by removing the accompanying descriptions (if any) and substituting totally unrelated captions. The intent is not to be insulting or hurtful but just to be humorous. May I do this and be within the constraints of copyright? Hope you can answer this. Thanks in advance in any case.

  31. Christina says:

    I’m wondering what happens to copyright if a newspaper closes down or merges with another? Most of what I have are pre-1950s. I don’t recall reading this, so not sure if I missed it in the above information.
    Thank you!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If there’s a business merger, the new owner usually acquires all property and property rights, including copyrights. If the paper completely closes, you may need to check first to see if the paper really is still copyrighted at all (see Peter Hirtle’s chart here for the variables) and second to see if there was a dissolution plan for what happened to any assets. Copyright doesn’t end just because the owner went out of business. Somebody may still own the rights.

  32. Sandi Gorin says:

    I think I know the answer, but … I have permission from our local paper (smaller town) to publish obituaries. I’ve done this for 15 some years. Then, every couple of years, I publish those in book form which I sell. I had a thought about using the photographs that accompany the obit. I know in the older papers not under copyright this is fine. But what about current times? Does the owner of the picture, the funeral home or the newspaper hold copyright? The photo is in 2 newspaper, the newspaper ezines, on the funeral home pages and I can do a web search and find them. What is your thoughts? I don’t want to do something illegal!


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The person who took the photograph holds the copyright. The newspaper does not, unless the photographer assigns the copyright (not the permission to publish but the actual copyright) to the newspaper. You should probably consult with a licensed professional in your jurisdiction for personal legal advice as to whether your use might be a fair use. (I don’t keep an active law license, and don’t give legal advice on specific current legal questions.)

      • Sandi Gorin says:

        Thank you so much; that is what I thought. I had wondered about fair use since the photo was now in the public domain. It was just a thought as we all like to see photos of our family!

        I appreciate your advice and I will check it out!

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Be careful here: just because something is published does NOT mean it’s public domain. It’s only public domain if it is not copyright-protected. Lots of published materials are not public domain.

  33. Don Macgregor says:

    I would like to publish extracts of articles by Arthur E Grix, originally pubished in the New York Times in 1927.
    These are just extracts. Can I use them?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Let me begin with my usual caveat: I do not keep a current law license and do not give legal advice. I’m a genealogist sharing thoughts with other genealogists — I just happen to be a genealogist with a law degree. Keep that in mind. Here’s the key dividing line for copyright purposes: facts can’t be copyrighted; the way they’re expressed can be. If you’re simply extracting facts (for example, for a marriage index, John Smith married Jane Doe, New York City, April 22, 1930), there’s no possible copyright issue. If you’re extracting anything beyond mere facts, there’s a potential for copyright concern.

  34. Goplaces says:

    I plan to publish a few selected articles from various newspapers in a weekly digital news feed which is purely non-profit. I plan to give due credit by mentioning the name of the author and the publishing newspaper /magazine from where the article was taken. Do I need to still obtain the express permission of the publication in writing or otherwise ?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The fact that you don’t get paid for publishing doesn’t change the copyright status of the materials you’re copying. You have to decide for yourself if what you’re doing qualifies as fair use (and I strongly suggest you consult with a licensed professional in your jurisdiction). If it isn’t fair use, then yes you do need permission to republish anything that’s copyright-protected.

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