A. According to US copyright law, works published before Jan. 1, 1923, are in the public domain, meaning anyone can use, adapt or copy them freely. See our quick guide to what copyright covers and download the US Copyright Office guide “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work” as a PDF.
But copyright and physical ownership are separate issues. “Even if the item is in the public domain, it’s a one-of-a-kind historical item, so physical ownership entitles the repository to charge a user’s fee. The same goes for historical photos in online databases,” Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of Carmack’s Guide to Copyright and Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers and Researchers, writes in the December 2004 Family Tree Magazine.
Once you find out which repository owns the physical image, call or check its website for information on rights and reproductions. Often, there’s a permission form you can fill out stating your planned use of the image.
Some repositories let individual researchers use images fee-free for personal or academic projects—meaning you probably could copy the image for your genealogy files or an album, or use it in a class for your genealogical society. Usually, you’ll have to pay a fee if you want to publish the image on a public website or in a book.
For your family website, Carmack suggests, it may be easiest to link to the digital image on the repository’s website rather than include the actual image on your site.
To learn more about how to tackle tough research questions, see Family Tree Magazine‘s book 101 Brick Wall Busters: Solutions to Overcome Your Genealogical Challenges, the Family Tree Magazine webinar recording Brick Wall Strategies: Advice and Ideas for Getting Past Research Dead Ends, and the Family Tree Problem Solver, all available on Family Tree Shop.