Winter 2002/03

Save Your Family

Readers’ photos, protected until 2047

Jay Worthington

In the last issue of Cabinet, we invited readers to send in family photographs taken by photographers who died before 1933 (see here). These images were your responses, and their contributors can sleep easy because under current American law these photographs are now copyrighted until 2047. Had they not been published by the end of this year, they would have entered the public domain on January 1, 2003.

Who cares? Probably nobody. Given that few people knew that these images existed before we published them here, there was little demand to make copies of them—an irony of this provision of copyright law is that it will release into the public domain only unpublished work, the sort of material it’s hard to imagine the public gaining access to, or even being aware of, in the first place. By the time this issue is distributed, it will be down to America’s libraries and archives to get busy and let us (the public) know what we have actually been given.

But what about all the unpublished writing of someone famous, like Mark Twain? For students and publishers of such celebrated writers, the release of old unpublished work into the public domain may well be meaningful. The Mark Twain Project, however, is as aware of copyright law as we are, and last year they published a three-microfilm set containing an estimated 500,000 pages of (mostly) unpublished writing by Mark Twain. The microfilm set is not cheap—actually, at $50,000 each, nobody’s bought one yet—but they are published. Until 2047, then, anyone wishing to pen the definitive Twain biography will have to obtain the Twain Project’s permission. Oh well.

Thanks to: Ariel Apte, Ibrahim Ba, David Berqvist, Denis Blot, Doris Brickhouse, Robert and Lynn Burress, Samantha Cranko, Sarah Crowner, Michael Hargrove, Sara Harris, Jason Hashmi, Peter Johnson, Ronald Joseph, Jane Melamed, Katie McMullen, Edward Nostrand, Frances Richard, Peter Rockefeller, Richard Sawka, Phillip Saxe-Coburg, Ayal Shlomo, Debra Singer, Robert Smith, Agnes Vertucci, Bonnie Williams, Cherma Wildman, Jay Worthington, Charles Yabba, and Josephine Zywicki.

To see the open call published in Cabinet no. 8 that invited readers to submit family photographs, go here.

Jay Worthington is a lawyer in New York City. He is also one of the founders of Clubbed Thumb, an independent theater company in New York, and editor-at-large at Cabinet.

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