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Copyright Law regarding government art

Started by The_Confessor, December 19, 2005, 08:35:17 PM

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   I'm presently designing a pulp RPG set in a post apocalyptic 1949 called Atomic Storm. I'm organizing and formatting my first draft and have begun looking into where to find art and artists. What I've found that really seems to suit the feel of AS are the old recruiting posters used in the 30s. I was wondering if anyone knew what the copyright law was regarding this artwork? I've been poking around copyright websites for the past few days and have been unable to find anything. Can anyone here shed some light on the situation?


James Spahn

Josh Roby


If they were made by the government for the government, they're public domain and you're free to use them.

However -- if they were made for the goverment by an ad agency or something similar, the rights may not have gone into the public domain.  You'll need to figure out where the posters actually came from -- if you have a good copy, it should be printed along the outside or on the back ("Made by the US Army Department of Brainwashing" or similar).
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Jason Morningstar

The Library of Congress American Memory collections include a lot of ephemera and generally provide clear attribution and rights information.  High resolution digital media, too.

Be sure to read the copyright information per collection, because it changes from one to the next. 



You will also need to consider how you plan to obtain the images.  If you are working with your own poster collection, that is one issue; if you plan to use images from some other collection (including those available online), that is a different issue.  Libraries and other entities that house poster (and other image) collections expect and often require appropriate citation.  Here is a typical restriction statement:

"Restrictions:  Materials published by the U.S. Government Printing Office are in the public domain and, as such, not subject to copyright restriction. However, the Library requests users to cite the URL and [Library institution] if they wish to reproduce images from its poster database."

As usual, the above does not constitute legal advice; consult an appropriate attorney, etc.


Josh Roby

Oh, yes, Julie, I nearly forgot that.

The poster may be in the public domain, but the photograph (or digital image) of the poster may not be.
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog


     As other people have also noted, I personally haven't got a law degree and you should always seek a profesional's opinion on an important legal choice of this kind. This is my impression of the copyright law in that respect however.
     Firstly, any art that is in the work when it is copyrighted is included in the copyright, assuming you mark the work as a combination of text and art when filling out the form.
     Secondly, if you comision or otherwise have someone create artwork for you, the intellectual property rights of the works created STILL belong to the person who made it unless otherwise agreed, which it is in most cases, but not always.
     Thirdly, anything that is within the public domain may be used freely by the public in any way that you like, but if you include it in your own work it will still remain a public domain piece of material.
     Lastly, if you plan on using any kind of material from someone else which is not specificaly declared as public you must obtain the writen permission of the copyright holder in order for it to be a legal exchange, and you should always cite the originator of the material you wish to use it in.
     I hope that was helpful, but in the event it wasn't I do suggest that you visit the US copyrights website for the official word on the matter in question.
     ...Oh yes, I forgot to mention, the current copyright laws do not necessarily apply to the works in question because the legal system applies the laws that were in place at the time of the work's creation. I think the 30s are before the major shift in these rules, so you might want to look into that.
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Ben Lehman

The Forge is not a good place to get informed legal opinions (not a cut on the Forge, just... we're not lawyers, mostly.)

IntelPropLaw is an excellent place to get legal opinions from real lawyers about these topics.


Veritas Games

Ben, while Joshua may not be a lawyer, his answers are spot on correct and he should be heeded.  As an FYI, some (but not all) U.S. Government websites with heavy photographic content include a legal or copyright link (often on the bottom of the page, but where varies).  This generally clarifies the copyright status of the photos.  Sometimes the link is called "Disclaimer".  In other cases you may have to contact the agency webmaster via email.  Most of the photos I've seen that were done by non-governmental agencies say this explicitly either in the aforementioned links or in the individual image gallery entry.

Lee Valentine
Veritas Games

Veritas Games

Almost forgot.  Look for a copyright notice.  A copyright notice is a pretty good sign that not all the material is public domain.
Lee Valentine
Veritas Games


It's possible to make mock ups of these posters legallly as long as they are not designed in a way that would not confuse people with the real thing.



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Quote from: Joshua BishopRoby on December 19, 2005, 10:10:02 PM
Oh, yes, Julie, I nearly forgot that.

The poster may be in the public domain, but the photograph (or digital image) of the poster may not be.

A photograph, or other work, which is a slavish reproduction of a public domain image cannot be copyrighted itself, under U.S. copyright law. However, courts have set a low bar for creative reinterpretation of these reproductions; a photograph of a portrait from the Louvre (which may very well be 300 years old and not subject to copyright law) can be held to be a protected, derivative work if even an iota of creativity went into it (for instance, setting up a lighting rig to get a good, diffused light on the canvas, thereby preventing specular reflection). While this is a pretty idiotic standard of creativity, such legal judgements have been made in the past on similar grounds. The bottom line is, even if use of an image clearly falls under fair use doctrines, someone can still sue you over it. They may or may not win, but it will likely be expensive in any case.


Since I publish a lot of pdfs nowadays and the margins on them are pretty slim, I mine public domain sources a lot. Most of the time, a government web site will have an "about" or "disclaimer" page of some kind that may mention whether the art is usable or not.

Things I have seen and think are worth pointing out (or repeating):
1) Just because it is on a gov't web site does not mean it is copyright-free or public domain. Sometimes, some low-level gov't web page creator will use copyrighted outside material on the page. Especially images from gov't contractors. Some of this stuff is public domain, some isn't.
2) Other governments do not have the same policy as the US regarding public domain. Stuff done by the British gov't is still copyrighted, for instance.
3) All US government military pics (and material confiscated by the Allies from the losers) from WWII is public domain.
4) There is gobs of gov't public domain material that is not on the web. The National Archive in DC is where the originals are. Other agencies may have their own physical archives. I'm currently doing a Freedom of Information Act search at the Defense Intelligence Agency to get copies of art used in all the "Soviet Military Power" handbooks they did back the bad old Cold War days. Some of the info is available online in high-res, but I have the original books and a lot of the public domain, hand-painted pics have not been digitized yet as far as I know.
5) Print off or save the web page policy from the site you snag something from, so you can say "see, it says I could use it" if needed.

And to play devil on the use of famous paintings, etc., I would point out that if the image is available from several different sources, it is highly unlikely any one of them will be able to say that your use of the picture infringes on their copyright unless the picture was digitally watermarked.

Greg Porter