Copyright Laws on Old Photos Explained

iEditorial Note: These blog posts represent the opinion of DoNotPay’s Writers, but each person’s situation and circumstances vary greatly. As a result, you should make sure to do your own independent research. Because everyone is unique, our self-help tools are never guaranteed to help with any specific situation. DoNotPay is not a law firm and is not licensed to practice law. DoNotPay provides a platform for legal information and self-help.

Confused by Copyright Laws on Old Photos? DoNotPay Can Help!

If you think that you own the copyright for all those old family photos because they are somewhere in your attic, you need to learn how copyright works. The U.S. copyright laws are no joke, and if you’re thinking about scanning old photos to save them from time, you might want to look into the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

In case you’re feeling confused, there’s no need to worry. DoNotPay will guide you through the world of copyright notices, DMCA protection, copyright claims, and other useful concepts to help you avoid copyright infringement.

Who Owns Copyright in a Photograph?

Taking a selfie with your family in front of a Christmas tree and asking your friend to take the same photo with your phone will produce similar results. When a family member asks to send them the better picture, you will probably choose the one with better composition and lighting or the one where no one blinked.

If you focus on the aesthetics, you may end up sending over a photo that you don’t own the copyright for. As mind-blowing as it may be, your friend who clicked the shutter button owns the copyright to that photo because they took it. How peculiar the image copyright laws can be was demonstrated in the famous lawsuit about a monkey-made selfie from 2011.

Unless you make a hire-for-work contract with a photographer, the one taking the photos will have the rights to:

  • Reproduce the photos
  • Display them to the general public
  • Create derivative works based on the photo
  • Sell, rent, lend, or lease the photograph

In reality, your friend most likely won’t cause any difficulties, but some problematic situations may arise, especially with old family photographs. If the photographer who took those black and white photos of your older family members is still alive or recently passed, you probably don’t own the copyright to those images.

Can You Copyright Family Photos?

If you’ve ever read about how to copyright photos, you know that the author’s rights kick in immediately upon creating original work. You own the copyright for all photos you’ve taken, and your family members own the copyright for any photos they’ve made.

While you don’t need to register your work officially, getting a copyright certificate from the U.S. Copyright Office comes with certain benefits:

  • Ability to file copyright infringement lawsuits
  • Public record of ownership
  • Presumption of ownership
  • Eligibility for statutory damages, attorney fees, and costs of the suit if you win
  • Protection against the importation of infringing works

How To Register Copyright for My Family Photos

To obtain your copyright certificate for family photos, you can apply for registration online or via mail. Online registration is faster and cheaper, and it involves these steps:

  1. Go to the U.S. Copyright Office website and select Register a Copyright
  2. Choose the Photography category
  3. Click on the Register a Photograph option to the right
  4. Create your free account and log in
  5. Pick Register a New Claim
  6. Fill out the application form
  7. Use a credit card to pay the registration fee
  8. Upload a copy of your photograph

Copyright registration is not free. You can see the basic U.S. Copyright Office fees in the table below:

Online RegistrationsSingle author, same claimant, one work, not for hire$45
All other filings$65
Paper Registrations (Forms PA, SR, TX, VA, SE)$125
Special Handling Fee for Expediting $800
Group RegistrationsPublished photographs or unpublished photographs$55
Group of updates for a photographic database$250

When Do Photo Copyrights Expire?

Most issues with the illegal use of old family photos come from not knowing how long copyright lasts. The general rule for photography copyright is that it’s valid while the copyright owner is alive plus an additional 70 years. The plot thickens in the case of older photographs.

The big milestone for the U.S. copyright legislation was the introduction of the Copyright Act in 1976. Creative works—including photography—made before 1976 fall into several different categories. Copyright duration for each category is visible in the table below:

Date of WorkCopyright Duration
Created and published before 1923None (public domain)
Made from 1923 to 196328 years (renewable for 67 years)
Published from 1964 to 197728 years + automatic extension of 67 years
Created before 1976 but not publishedAuthor’s life + 70 years or 12/31/2002 (whichever is longer)
Made before 1976 but published between 1976 and 2003Author’s life + 70 years or 12/31/2047 (whichever is longer)

It’s not likely that someone will knock on your door soon and cause trouble because you put some black and white images in your photo album, but if you choose to use those images commercially or display them publicly, try researching who the real copyright owner is first.

How To Avoid Breaking Copyright Laws on Old Photos

The following list contains several suggestions on how you can avoid copyright issues when dealing with old family photos:

  • Find the copyright owner—Ask your older family members who took the photo you’re interested in. If it was a professional photographer and the copyright hasn’t expired yet, try locating them and ask for written permission to use the image
  • Research the fair use doctrine—In certain situations, you may use copyrighted content, but fair use is not strictly defined. This doctrine is usually a good defense for non-commercial, educational, or parodic uses
  • Use public domain images—The best method to avoid copyright infringement is to use photos whose copyright expired, whatever your project involves. You can find public domain photos on numerous websites, including Wikimedia Commons and Unsplash

Protect Your Digital Photos With DoNotPay

What if you notice that someone used your family photos online without permission? Filing a lawsuit, even if you had registered the copyright, is a drastic and expensive measure. One of the best ways to handle such copyright infringement is to send the infringer a DMCA takedown notice.

DoNotPay can help you write a valid takedown notice within minutes. You won’t have to lose time on research or waste money on help. Follow these simple steps:

  1. Create your DoNotPay account in any
  2. Log in and select DMCA Takedown
  3. Answer several questions about your photos and the infringement
  4. Confirm your identity
  5. Click on Sign and Submit to get your notice

With this method, you don’t have to worry about registering copyrights and paying unnecessary fees. DoNotPay’s takedown notices work even if you can’t present official proof of ownership.

DoNotPay Is Indispensable for Fighting Bureaucracy

Our platform can be a great resource for fighting various problems with administration besides copyright infringement. If you need a reliable method to minimize paperwork and deal with bureaucratic woes, sign up for your DoNotPay account in any .

DoNotPay’s mission is to serve as the world’s first AI Consumer Champion and protect your rights whenever possible. Our vast portfolio is full of easy-to-use solutions, including:

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