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    brian steinberger's Avatar
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    Legal Rights Regarding Old Negatives, photographers unknown

    I have recently been acquiring some old railroad negatives off ebay. They are 120 negatives and are obviously from varying photographers, who, I have no idea. I know I can make prints from these which I plan to do, but do I now own the rights to do whatever I want with these negatives? Can I make and sell prints? Can I make prints are display them in a public exhibition? And if so, do I have to state 'photographer unknown'?

    I'm just very unfamiliar with this. It is new territory for me.

    Thanks.

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    ROL
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    Short answer: Consult a copyright attorney.

    Long answer you're probably not going to like: How did your sources get them? Did the seller provide you with copyright? Investigate the provenances to find correct attribution and public domain use.

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    brian steinberger's Avatar
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    Assuming the rights are retained by the railroad companies who hired these photographers to take these photographs then how can someone sell the negatives on ebay? Isn't that copyright infringement?

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    Quote Originally Posted by brian steinberger View Post
    Assuming the rights are retained by the railroad companies who hired these photographers to take these photographs then how can someone sell the negatives on ebay? Isn't that copyright infringement?
    The copyright issues will vary between jurisdictions - e.g., in Canada, unless modified by contract, the copyright will initially vest in the party hiring the photographer, whereas in the USA, unless modified by contract, the copyright will initially vest in the photographer.

    And in either jurisdiction, the copyright in the image is separate from the negatives themselves.

    Simple, it is not!
    Matt

    “Photography is a complex and fluid medium, and its many factors are not applied in simple sequence. Rather, the process may be likened to the art of the juggler in keeping many balls in the air at one time!”

    Ansel Adams, from the introduction to The Negative - The New Ansel Adams Photography Series / Book 2

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    brian steinberger's Avatar
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    Wow this is complicated. So am I atleast able to make prints from these negatives to enjoy for myself?

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    Quote Originally Posted by brian steinberger View Post
    Wow this is complicated. So am I atleast able to make prints from these negatives to enjoy for myself?
    Yes.

    Best IANAL I can give you on selling them; how old are they? If they are very old (early 1900's) and there is a good chance that the original photographer is deceased, chances are nobody will bother you unless they turn out to be truly valuable, ie, if you found old unpublished Ansel negatives his lineage may take exception to you selling prints from them. But it sounds like there is a good chance that nobody is watching out for these. I would not in any way sell them as your originals however, you could sell them as reprints but any gallery or similar venue would probably want to see some documentation that you have rights to these before they would allow you to sell in their venue.

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    MattKing's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by brian steinberger View Post
    Wow this is complicated. So am I atleast able to make prints from these negatives to enjoy for myself?
    This sounds like a law school exam question .

    I'm assuming that you are thinking of showing them in your own home or own personal workspace, or putting them in an album to show them to others - without any commercial interests whatsoever being involved.

    My answer is - who is likely to complain about it?

    While that may sound a bit flippant, it is also highly relevant.

    If there isn't anyone who will likely seek a legal remedy against you for what you are doing, then it isn't likely that you need worry about it.

    And if you are concerned about the morality of printing the negatives I would suggest you ask yourself whether the holder of the copyright is even potentially losing anything by your doing so.

    I would have a different answer if you either recognized the images as being publicly well known and/or knew of who might own the copyright.
    Matt

    “Photography is a complex and fluid medium, and its many factors are not applied in simple sequence. Rather, the process may be likened to the art of the juggler in keeping many balls in the air at one time!”

    Ansel Adams, from the introduction to The Negative - The New Ansel Adams Photography Series / Book 2

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    If they are 120 size negatives they may not be that old. I'm not that certain the original photographer or the copyrite holder could be determined unless research is done. I like to think of images from unknown photographers as documents from history. They might not meet gallery or publication standards without finding out about who or where the materials originated. I've printed some images from older size negatives that are larger than 120s but well under a 4x5 size. You need a large format 4x5 enlarger for those negatives. I don't know what type of reference books are available on this issue, but I wonder if anyone can cite such materials.

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    brian steinberger's Avatar
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    Thanks guys. The negatives are from the 40's and 50's. I'm looking for negatives that I can make prints from (up to 6x9) of regional railroads showing locomotives. I have two negs now, one from Hagerstown, MD and one from Washington DC. My idea is to make prints from these negatives to my artistic tastes just for historical purposes. I enjoy local history and I enjoy railroad history. At some point in time after I accumulate a decent collection of negatives and make prints from them it'd be neat to show them. And if someone was interested in purchasing one, that is where I was a bit confused. I mean how would these negatives get out on the open market if the original copyright owner actually cared about their importance or significance?

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    I believe, could be wrong, but there is a law in the US where a origional copyright holder(s) can make a claim that he/she didn't mean to sell/throw out his/her artwork and gain back his/her full rights.

    I personally wouldn't go down this route because of too many unknowns and that worry one day that there will be a knock on my door looking for his/her cut of the pie (or more formally a cease and desist)
    Andy

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