Copyright Photos

photos-1915-aWe all love to add photos to the family tree / scrapbook / history of our ancestors when we can locate them. However, there arises the question of copyright to photos. The law protecting the creator of a photo is copyright law.

The first thing to determine is approximately when the photo was produced, especially if it was done in a professional studio. You can tell by knowing the approximate dates of when a relative lived, their clothing styles, or any items in the photos (such as a vehicle). In the United States, if the photo (even done by a professional) was before January 1, 1923, it is in the public domain. That means it is available for anyone to use, for any purpose.


If it was created between 1923 and 1963, it is protected for 28 years and then could be renewed for 47 years, plus another 20 years. If it was not renewed after the 28 years then it is in the public domain.

If done between 1964 to 1977 it is protected for 27 years and then can be extended 67 years. Anything done after January 1, 1978 can have a copyright for the life of the person who created the photos plus 70 years.

photos-1915Of course at any time the creator can place the photo in public domain and there it remains.

For family history purposes most photos, no matter the source, can fall under the ‘fair use’ policy. Here the family intends only to make the photo a part of their family tree, for non-profit research or to share with relatives – it is fair use. If the photo was to be used in a commercial book without permission and not in public domain, copyright laws do take effect then.

Finding a long lost image of your grandmother is thrilling but do make the attempt to see who contributed the photo, even one older than 1923 and get permission to use it in your family tree. It just might be that contributor has some other family images.  photos-1920-a

Photos: 1915 and 1920 – all in public domain.


Links to Related article and blog:

Genealogy data copyrighted.

Finding Photos


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