Public Domain, Copyright and Other Issues

So we’re chugging along on the film and various ancillary projects and this discussion came up with our Production Assistant today (Laura, who’s temporarily stepped aside from the wonderful work she’s been doing on the blog to work on the Homefront Heroines TagWhat project): when does something move into the public domain?

We’re considering works originally published during World War II, films and newsreels for the most part. According to copyright law, the works might be in the public domain. Then again, they might not. It all depends upon if the copyright was renewed or not. If it wasn’t, the work is in the public domain. If not, a film produced in 1944 would remain copyright protected until 2039.

We understand (and fully support) copyright protections. It keeps the creator of the work in control of how the work is distributed.  That’s a good thing. However, where it gets muddy is when a corporation uses film produced by a public entity, such as the U.S. government, and then masks its production of the film in copyright. We’re running into that issue with newsreels right now. Much of the footage is government produced – yet the copyright in some cases is held by a film studio. Or, a film produced by a studio has fallen out of copyright, but the production company who repackages the material claims they have “copyright” on the production. Not exactly. On the DVD packaging, yes. On the film itself, not so much.

Muddy areas. Frustrating areas. And all of it is complicated by the web and the publishing that occurs therein.

That being said, this photo is produced by the U.S. Navy. We’re sharing it with you because it is “owned,” as it were, by the U.S. public.

WAVE Airbrushes Photo

Navy WAVE Airbrushes Photo

at Navy Art & Animation Division


  1. Eric Grayson says:

    This is why I collect vintage film prints so the lineage is easier. There was a ton of good government material made in WWII, and it’s mostly clear. Copyright law can be insane and run counter to preservation, too. I wrote a blog entry called “The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law,” as a salute to it. There’s also a great piece on Fair Use on YouTube that I encourage you to seek out.

    1. Yes, lots of our archival material has come from the National Archives, which is a wonderful source. But even there you can run into problems, especially with newsreel footage. Please post the links to your blog and the YouTube site, if you can.

  2. Great site! I’ve been trying to look into copyright laws for my vast WWII photo collection, but can’t seem to get any straight answers. I see that you’re looking for images of Navy WAVES – I have a few nice kodachrome slide portraits of Navy WAVES if you would be interested in posting them on your site.

    1. Thanks! We’re updating our website for a relaunch on Friday and it will have the ability to share user content. We’ll post the link when the new site is up and running.

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