MOVIEPOSTERCOLLECTORS.COM ARTICLE

MOVIE POSTER IMAGES AND COPYRIGHT LAW

 

MoviePosterCollectors.com is the Internet’s newest portal, reference, and showcase to the wonderful world of movie poster collecting!  Pursuant to the “fair use” provisions of United States copyright law, any digital images on this site of movie posters subject to copyright protection are displayed solely for the non-profit purposes of education and promotion of movie poster collecting. For any questions or concerns feel free to contact the site administrator at administrator(“at sign”)moviepostercollectors.com.

NOTE: This article offers a brief overview of United States law concerning movie poster images and copyright law solely for informational purposes. It does not constitute legal advice.


INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY


There is significant confusion in this hobby about copyright law and legal rights associated with images of movie posters.


First, collectors and dealers have no legal rights associated with images of copyrighted posters (some 1964-1977 posters and all post 1978-posters) since those images are reproductions and are not “original works.” The movie studios are the copyright owners and they have the exclusive right to reproduce their posters. You may only post images, including your own images, of copyrighted posters if you obtain permission from the movie studios OR if the “fair use” exception applies. The image source of copyrighted posters is legally irrelevant. You have no obligation to obtain permission from or give credit to the image source, although you may voluntarily choose to do so.


Almost all pre-1964 movie posters and some 1964-1977 movie posters have fallen into the public domain. However, any images of such posters are public property and have no legal rights associated with them. You may obtain, use, and alter any image of a poster in the public domain without permission of or credit to the image source, although you may choose to do so.


IMAGES: THRESHOLD ISSUE: IS THE POSTER IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN OR COPYRIGHTED?


The threshold issue regarding images of movie posters is whether a particular movie poster has fallen into the “public domain” or is still “copyrighted.” This is a rather complicated subject but simply described the process works as follows.


To promote a movie, movie studios create movie posters as part of an advertising campaign. The movie poster qualifies as an “original work”[1] and the movie studio[2] is the copyright holder. So long as the movie poster remains copyrighted, the movie poster is the sole copyright owner of that poster and has the exclusive right to reproduce that movie poster.[3]


However, the copyright to a movie poster eventually expires and the poster then falls into the “public domain” and is public property. Under US law:


- All movie posters created on or after January 1, 1978, are copyrighted.[4]

  1. -Some movie posters created between 1960 and 1977 are copyrighted. Some have fallen into the public domain.[5]

  2. -Most 1923-1959 movie posters are in the public domain because (a) they were never properly copyrighted originally or (b) the copyright was not timely renewed after the original 28 year copyright expired.

- All pre-1923 movie posters are in the public domain.



IMAGES OF POSTERS IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN ARE PUBLIC PROPERTY


Images of movie posters that have fallen into the public domain are public property and have no legal protection. This means you can obtain, use, and/or alter any image of a public domain poster from any source without permission or credit.[6] However, you may voluntarily choose to do so. Of course, this rule is a double-edged sword. Your images of your public domain posters are public property, so if you post them on the Internet anyone can take and use them without permission or credit.



YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO DISPLAY YOUR COPY OF A COPYRIGHTED POSTER BUT NOT TO PHOTOGRAPH IT


When you buy a copy of a copyrighted poster, you obtain ownership of the physical poster but not any copyright associated with that poster.[7] Your sole right is to display it anywhere you choose.[8]


Surprisingly, you do not have the right to photograph your own copy of a copyrighted poster. Why? Because a photograph technically is a reproduction and the copyright owner retains the exclusive right to reproduce a copyrighted poster.


Fortunately, as explained in the next section, “fair use” generally allows you to photograph your poster and post your pictures for non-profit, hobby-related purposes.



THE “FAIR USE” EXCEPTION TO COPYRIGHT NORMALLY PERMITS YOU TO POST IMAGES (INCLUDING YOUR OWN IMAGES) OF MOVIE POSTERS ON THE INTERNET


“Fair use” is a critical exception to copyright.[9]  “Fair use” is a complicated area of law but generally permits you to post any movie poster image, including your own images of your own posters, on the Internet, including forums and personal websites, for hobby-related and non-profit purposes.



YOU DO NOT HAVE TO OBTAIN PERMISSION FROM OR GIVE CREDIT TO INTERMEDIATE SOURCES OF IMAGES OF COPYRIGHTED POSTERS


As explained above, the movie studios are the copyright owners, they have the exclusive right to reproduce their posters, and pictures of movie posters are technically reproductions. Therefore, the image source of copyrighted posters is legally irrelevant. You have no obligation to obtain permission from or give credit to an intermediate image source, although you may voluntarily choose to do so.


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ENDNOTES


[1] 17 USC Section 102(a): “Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories…. (5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works….”


[2] Typically the movie studio hires an ad agency to create the movie poster. However, the movie poster is almost always a “work for hire” and the movie studio, not the ad agency, owns the copyright. Sometimes the illustrator hold the copyright. For example, Tom Chantrell, perhaps the best known UK artist, retained the copyright for many of his movie poster illustrations.


[3] 17 USC Section 106: “Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies….”


[4] The 1976 Copyright Act greatly simplified copyright law.  Under that Act, all original works created after January 1, 1978 are automatically copyrighted, although formal registration is warranted under some circumstances.


[5] Public Law 102-307, enacted on June 26, 1992, amended the copyright law to make renewal automatic and renewal registration optional for works originally copyrighted between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977.


[6] Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., 36 F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) is the key case. It holds that photographic copies of public domain images are not protected under US copyright law because the copies lack originality.


[7] 17 USC Section 202: “Ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied. Transfer of ownership of any material object, including the copy or phonorecord in which the work is first fixed, does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work embodied in the object; nor, in the absence of an agreement, does transfer of ownership of a copyright or of any exclusive rights under a copyright convey property rights in any material object.”


[8] 17 USC Section 109(c): “Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(5), the owner of a particular copy lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to display that copy publicly, either directly or by the projection of no more than one image at a time, to viewers present at the place where the copy is located.”


[9] 17 USC Section 107: “Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.”