Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Old Newspapers and Copyright

In a comment, a question was raised about copyright protection for old newspapers. First of all, there is no question that newspaper content is covered by copyright unless otherwise exempt. So what might be the exceptions? I would refer you to Circular 1, Copyright Basics by the U.S. Copyright Office. Newspapers fall within the definition of a collective work. Title 17 of the United States Code, Section 101, states, in part: "A “collective work” is a work, such as a periodical issue, anthology, or encyclopedia, in which a number of contributions, constituting separate and independent works in themselves, are assembled into a collective whole." The procedures for copyright registration for newspapers and newsletters published daily is covered in Circular 62A by the U.S. Copyright Office. For newspapers and newsletters published weekly or monthly, see Circular 62B, Copyright Registration of a Group of Serial Issues.

One exception to copyright coverage would be the inclusion of works from the public domain. The rest of the newspaper would be covered, but those parts clearly not covered by copyright cannot become protected merely by their inclusion in a protected work.  As to the copyright coverage for the included works, the definition of a work for hire is as follows:
A “work made for hire” is defined as (1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or Group Registration of Newspapers and Newsletters (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for certain uses, including use as a contribution to a collective work, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. The employer is the author of a work made for hire.
The various contributors to a newspaper or newsletter may apportion the copyright ownership as they wish to do so pursuant to the contracts and agreements between the contributors. Generally, this is not an issue because the publisher of the newspaper will extract an agreement from the authors that their works are works for hire and that the publisher owns the copyright.

Unless you are positive that a newspaper article is not subject to copyright, you are bound to assume that any published work, whether or not any type of copyright notice is given, is covered by the copyright law.

That said, from a practical standpoint, any material published before 1923 is no longer subject to a claim of copyright notwithstanding any written allegations to the contrary made by the publisher concerning the original work or reproduction. But do you really want to get into an argument even if there is a question as to the validity of the copyright claim?

If I find an obituary of the Grandfather in the local newspaper is the obituary covered by copyright subsequent to 1923? Absolutely yes. The real issue is whether or not the newspaper owns the copyright. Can I copy the entire obituary for my own private use? There are no copyright police out there enforcing copyright claims, however the original author or the newspaper, whomever owns the copyright, could make a claim that you violated their copyright.


  1. Thanks so much! I am writing a novel that is historical fiction. I want to include quotes from newspaper articles. The time period is during the 1840's so that helps me with the copyright questions. My concerns have been if old works like poems and pamphlets were ever reprinted in modern days. Could someone still own the copyright in that case? Even if the character in the novel would clearly be referring to the original work? Law is so complicated! I appreciate the way you share what you've learned with others! Thanks!

  2. So if I want to use newspaper clippings in my book about my mother, do I have to hunt down the original newspaper to search for the copyright? Will I get hauled to court if no permission? How much will a paper usually charge for use of their article? There is a lot of talk about this subject but not much clarity. Thanks.

    1. I am unaware of any court rulings on this subject. It depends on how you use the clippings and whether or not the use is considered to be fair use. I will update this blog in sometime in the near future. Watch for my update.