Copyright or public domain

Photographer Carol Highsmith received a $120 settlement demand from Getty Images after she used one of her own public domain images on her website. It was among thousands of other images she previously donated to the Library of Congress and made available to the public to reproduce and display for free. Getty said it would defend its position based on the fact that Carol Highsmith had placed her work in the public domain. They continued to send out out threatening letters trying to extort Carol Highsmith for her own photo she made available to public domain.

“We have seen that an image or image(s) represented by Alamy has been used for online use by your company. According to Alamy’s records your company doesn’t have a valid license for use of the image(s),” the Getty letter began.

The copyright statute Title 17 of the US Code.
The public domain consists of works that are free of copyright action or other legal means. This means you are free to use public domain works however you wish without seeking permission because the creators of the work dedicated them to the public domain.

Works such as a photograph could be public domain for these reasons:

  • The photo was created by the U.S. government.
  • The photo lacks a copyright notice. (Copyright notices are no longer required in the United States but ifthe photograph was published before 1989 a copyright notice was legally required. It went into the public domain if it was published without one.)
  • The photographs copyright licence expired.
  • Under certain circumstances photographs are not eligible for copyright protection.
  • The work has been dedicated to public domain.

There are some public domain exceptions. You could violate a persons publicity or privacy rights if the photograph you want to use includes an identifiable person and you want to use the photograph commercially. (Even if it is public domain you may need permission or to pay fees )

Copyright Expiration

The length of its copyright protection will depend on which law was being practiced in the United States at the time. The 1909 Act or the 1976 Act.

  • Published before 1923 = Public Domain
  • Works published in the US as recently as 1963 could be in the public domain because their copyright has expired. The copyright for unpublished works expired on January 1, 2003

On October 27, 1998 President Clinton signed into law the “Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act”. This extends the terms of almost all existing copyrights by 20 years.


Section 101 of the US copyright statute defines publication like so:

“Publication” is the distribution of copies of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending. Offering to distribute copies to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution or public display also constitutes publication. A public display does not of itself constitute publication.