Now What? Copyright and Wrongs
2/1/2001
What are the laws concerning copyright and antique photos?

Q. I have 10 cardboard photos of family portraits dating between 1880 and 1890 that I took to Wal-Mart to make copies on the photocopy machine. But the clerk there told me I wasn't allowed to make prints or copies because they were professional photos and because of copyright laws I've previously taken a couple of them to studies and had negative and print made with no problems. There are no copyright symbols on any of the photos and they're well over 100 years old. Was the clerk right? What are the laws concerning copyright and antique photos?

A. This is an important question. As many people develop their family histories, they're collecting documents of all sorts, with photographs and letters being of the utmost importance. Photographs, letters and other documents are of course subject to copyright laws. Copyright law protects exactly what it says: the right to make copies. Copies can come in many different forms, such as direct photocopying of the works, having pictures reproduced, creating other products with the image on them, even e-mailing or posting on a Web site. Whether on paper or electronic, all are considered making copies and may not be done without the permission of the copyright owner unless what you are doing is deemed a "fair use."