Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I think I told you I'm into organizing family photos these days. I really want to do my family heritage in a scrapbook. So, I've been scanning old slides and photos into the computer and swapping pictures with other family members.

Today I downloaded some pictures to a photo store and went to pick them up after about an hour. I get there, and the lady says she can't give me some of my pictures because they appear to be professional portraits. I would need to show a copyright release. Okay, I can perfectly understand protecting photographer's rights. I have heard of people paying for a sitting but only getting the proof portraits that they then go reproduce cheaper than the photographer's $100+ package. But these pictures I have are over 40 years old. Our family has only one copy of most of them, and though I could tell you where and when they were taken, I have no idea who the photographer was, if they are still in business, or even if they are still alive to care if I make 2 copies. It's not like I'm selling them to my relatives for even a penny each.

Photography is an interesting thing. It seems whoever clicked the camera is the owner of that shot, even if there are 9 other people who stood in the same spot and got the same exact scene on film. How can you tell the pictures apart when you lay them out together? Who really knows, but you can protect what is yours if you want to. It seems, though, to only be a rather recently that the average person (not a famous professional) can register copyright on photos -- though I really don't know much about it. (Makes it hard to find pictures for this blog!)

I do know that the words you put together as an author are a part of who you are and uniquely yours. Once you put them out for public viewing it would be an infringement on your rights if anyone took those words and claimed them as their own.

Now if 10 authors stood on the same spot at the same time and wrote down what they observed at a county fair, you would have 10 descriptions that are very decent to each individual. I would find the copyright of this instance easy to measure.

If you want to quote someone else's words, you must first check the copyright laws to see how much you can use before you need to contact the individual for written or even paid permission. For example, you cannot quote a Helen Steiner Rice poem, or even a line or two, without permission from her foundation. You should be okay to quote just a line from something like a movie without special permission if you give credit where due. The difference is in the percentage of the work you want to quote in relation the size of work you are quoting it in. That's where things can get sticky, and why I'm glad that fiction rarely has to worry about quotes like non-fiction publishing does.

If you have a quote and don't know the author, you can specifically say that these are not your words and that you do not know who they belong to -- "author unknown." But it is best when in doubt to leave it out.

Yes, I know I've rambled out of my frustrations. It is nice, though, to see how everyone is an artist with the right to protect our creations even if it is just a family snapshot or a journal entry. Don't be afraid to create. And don't be afraid to share your creations. The law is behind you.


Jess said...

Becky, don't be afraid to take your picture to Wal-Mart and make your own copy.

After my uncle died, my cousin took all the family pics to Wal-Mart to make copies. She stood there more than an hour scanning way too many. Finally, the woman behind the counter came up to her, took all the photos and told her she couldn't have them because of copyright infringement.

My brother, on the other hand, took several professionally done photos of our dad and got them reproduced at Wal-Mart with no problem.

I've been even more brazen: my nephew's pic was in a national magazine--a full page picture. I wanted a copy so I took the magazine to Wal-Mart and made me one. No problem.

Tips: smile, look friendly, don't ask for help, don't try to do too many pics during one visit, and don't look like a suspicious character.

If you get caught... go to another Wal-Mart.

Great post. I always get really nervous when I want to quote from a book or a song... or copy pics from magazines. :)

Lynette Sowell said...

I think in the case of Wal-Mart, it all depends on who's in the photo lab...

But, Becky, did you get your copies of those 40-year-old pictures? I hope so! I would think the lab would recognize the originals are very old, and there's no way you could find a copyright for them. Those old family pictures are priceless. My favorite one (way more than 40 years old) is my great-grandparents' wedding photo, taken around 1918 or so. :)

Jess said...

Lynette said: I think in the case of Wal-Mart, it all depends on who's in the photo lab...

Of course you're right. The point is, Becky, don't give up. Get your copies made. Your entire ordeal sort of reminds me of throwing the teen out of school when she shares a Midol with her cramping friend. Let's enforce the law--regardless of how much sense it makes.

I have my grandparent's wedding pics and original marriage license. They look like babies, and she went on to have 15 kids. Ouch!

Kristy Dykes said...

"I do know that the words you put together as an author are a part of who you are and uniquely yours. Once you put them out for public viewing it would be an infringement on your rights if anyone took those words and claimed them as their own."

K: This reminds me of something Gilbert Morris said along similar lines (when an author studies another author's style to learn from it): "If you use one source, it's plagarism. If you use 10, it's research!" He said that with a chuckle at a writers' conf.

Ornery's Wife said...

I worked in a scrapbook store that made color copies of pages and photos for customers. The rule, apparently is that any photo over 100 years old is fair game. Your 40 year old ones are too new to legally reproduce. If they have no name imprinted on them or any other copyright mark, then there is no way to prove they are protected. I don't suppose there are many people out there who would prosecute, but just like with most legalities, the companies have to protect themselves. Best of luck to you!

Becky said...

I do wish my home printer did a better quality photo print. My attempts so far come out rather dark. My SIL's printer does fairly good. I have sent the pictures to another photo service through the Internet, but will have to wait a week for delivery. I do agree that it is all about who is behind the desk and how much of a stickler they want to be. But I am glad the laws are there to protect people like my acquaintance who has a portrait studio in her home that is the primary source of family income.

Mary Connealy said...

Apparently there were a few years there, when senior pictures, the only really good quality photos of my childhood, stopped being in black and white and switched to color ... BUT ... the ink wasn't very good.
So my sister ruth's picture, taken in 1972, was painted I guess...not sure, it's funny. But my next oldest sister Nila's picture, taken in 1973 was with this weird ink, and so was mine in 1974.
In hers, the yellow faded and her picture turned purple.
In mind the red faded and my picture turned green. Very strange.
I know, this doesn thave to do with copyrights. But it does make me part of like...archeology, right? If people ever dig my picture up as an artifact they'll take on look at it and, green, graduated in 1974, huh?