Can The USPS Really Restrict What You Do With Photographs Of WPA Murals?

from the public-domain? dept

Joshua Weinberg points us to a question from Rick Prelinger, questioning why the US Postal Service restricts photography of the New Deal/WPA murals that it owns. As the USPS website notes, it owns over 1,000 murals that were all commissioned by the Treasury Department between the years of 1934 and 1943. You would think, therefore, they should be in the public domain. Not quite. While you can take photos, the USPS says that photos may only be low resolution, meaning "a maximum of 72 dpi and no larger than a four-by-five-inch output to end use." It has some other rules about not causing a disruption in Post Office facilities, which makes perfect sense, but it's difficult to see how the other rule makes sense. I can also understand if the goal was preservation (no flash, etc.), but not restrictions on how the images can be used. The US gov't does not own the copyright on these works, and thus it seems like they should be in the public domain. Given the USPS's own recent troubles over someone else claiming copyright on an image used in a USPS stamp, you would think they would be sensitive to these sorts of things.


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  1.  
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    Cohen (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 4:38am

    72 dpi low resolution is meaningless

    I hope someone will explain to the USPS that a requirement that an image be low resolution is meaningless.

    If I use a 12 megapixel camera to shoot an image, the image is still 72 ppi. It may be 20 inches by 13 inches, but it is still only 72 ppi.

    It's only when I change the image to 300 ppi and it changes to 5 by 4 that it becomes a high-resolution image.

    But anyone taking a picture takes a low resolution image. It's just that the image itself can be changed to high resolution. (God, I wish I had a nickel for each time I have to teach that. Oh wait, I DO get a nickel for teaching that! I sometimes get more than a nickel!)

     

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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 5:06am

    Re: 72 dpi low resolution is meaningless

    But in this case is has to be 72dpi and 4"x5".

    I could understand the "no disturbance" thing and I can almost understand the "no flash" thing, but I can't understand the resolution restriction on a non-copyrighted picture.

     

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    Comboman (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 5:16am

    Commissioned does not mean work-for-hire

    As the USPS website notes, it owns over 1,000 murals that were all commissioned by the Treasury Department between the years of 1934 and 1943. You would think, therefore, they should be in the public domain.

    Why would you assume that? The Post Office may own the physical murals but they probably don't hold the copyright on them. A commissioned artwork is generally not a work-for-hire situation (i.e. the artists were not employees of the USPS) and unless the USPS specifically stated in the contract that the copyright would be assigned to them, the artists would be the copyright holders. While a work produced by the US government is immediately in the public domain, that's probably not the case here. A painting from 1934 would not enter the public domain until 2029.

     

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  4.  
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    Cohen (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 5:35am

    Re: Re: 72 dpi low resolution is meaningless

    I agree that if they specified 72 ppi at 4 inches by 5 inches, they would have that low resolution image.

    But they state "a maximum of 72 dpi and no larger than a four-by-five-inch output to end use".

    This means that 4 by 5 inch requirement only comes into play on output. Therefore there is no restriction on what is captured in the camera.

     

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    Steve R. (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 5:48am

    Post-Sale Control - You Have NO Rights

    While the murals are not being sold, what the Post Office is doing exemplifies a growing issue; that is people and companies believe that they retain a perpetual "control" over products/content. Russian WWII Veterans Asked To Pay Up For Singing Old War Songs

    Furthermore, they even assert ancillary "control" over products/content through the flimsiest of excuses. Disney Lawyers Chose Not To Sue You For Posting Your Disney World Vacation Videos... But They Could!

     

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  6.  
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    Arfnotz, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 6:33am

    Murals

    If its true the original artists retain rights to the murals (not that that's clear here) the the PO should say something more along the lines of "These are copyright to Joe Blow or his estate and you shouldn't reproduce them or Joe Blow migh sue you. Just sayin'"

     

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  7.  
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    Phil, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 6:44am

    Physical ownership doesn't equal copyright

    Comboman may be right about the USPS murals -- there may be artists who own the rights to the murals which are only decades old, but.....
    Both in the US and in Europe, museums try to make people believe that they control the rights to images that are centuries old. If you believe what their websites say, you would have to pay the museum in order to use a photograph of a painting from their collection in your publication. This scam is conducted even by museums that are government owned. It's simply a shameful lie, but it is repeated over and over.

     

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  8.  
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    DH's love child, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 6:45am

    Re: Murals

    More specifically, if the USPO doesn't own the rights, they can't enforce any restrictions not specifically spelled out by the contract with rights holder.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 6:53am

    The USPS website gives this contact for information about the murals.
    Dallan C. Wordekemper, CPM® Federal Preservation Officer dallan.c.wordekemper@usps.gov

     

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  10.  
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    Michial Thompson, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 6:58am

    More importantly

    *IF* they were commissioned by the Treasury of the United Stated, *AND* they were somehow granted the copyrights wouldn't that make them the property of the Citizens of the United States, and make the Copyrights also assigned to the Citizens?

    I don't know how Copyright is extended to the Government, but it is at least my understanding that this is how it works...

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:14am

    Re: 72 dpi low resolution is meaningless

    um, Cohen's whole post was nonsensical. 72ppi at 4x5 is very literal amount of pixel space. Actual pixels being no more than 280x360. So if you're taking a photo with a 12mp camera, you're breaking their rules, simply because NO 12mp CAMERA even at the lowest setting will capture at a resolution as small as 280x360.

    the last part of your comment makes even less sense. A digital image file has a set amount pixel values stored within. you can't just 'change it to high resolution' and magicly conjure up missing pixels. It can never be larger (with out an image editing prog to RESAMPLE the pixels thus making the 'changed' version blurry).

    who pays you to explain this stuff o.0

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:43am

    Hey Cohen, be careful...if your employer sees your posts, you might find yourself looking for a new job. Better yet, your students might use your posts to get a refund. Just a heads up..

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:19am

    Re: Commissioned does not mean work-for-hire

    "A commissioned artwork is generally not a work-for-hire situation (i.e. the artists were not employees of the USPS)"

    If I contract someone to mow my lawn they may not be my employees but their work (the mowed lawn) belongs to me. I HIRED them to mow my lawn. Yes, a commissioned work is a work for hire, claiming that they weren't employees is irrelevant. Even if I buy something from the store the people who made the product aren't my employees but the product still belongs to me because I bought it.

    "unless the USPS specifically stated in the contract that the copyright would be assigned to them, the artists would be the copyright holders."

    No, the other way around. Unless the contract specifically sates that the work belongs to the artist, the work should automatically belong to the person who bought it. Just like if I buy a product from a store it can reasonably be assumed it belongs to me.

    Furthermore, the USPO, as an entity that has a government granted monopoly, should not be allowed to posses work that doesn't belong in the public domain. Public property, or property that is paid for or in part benefits from a government granted monopoly, should not be a venue that stores someone's private goods. www.publicstorage.com would be more than glad to accommodate you.

    "A painting from 1934 would not enter the public domain until 2029."

    More examples of how broken our IP system This law was intended not to benefit the public but to benefit special interest groups which should reasonably raise questions as to the intended purpose of other aspects of our broken laws.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:59am

    Re: Re: Commissioned does not mean work-for-hire

    the laws aren't broken, it's the public's entitlement to artist's work centuries later, that's where it's broken.

     

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    Steve R. (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 10:16am

    Re: Post-Sale Control - You Have NO Rights

     

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  16.  
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    Comboman (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:16pm

    Re: Re: Commissioned does not mean work-for-hire

    "If I contract someone to mow my lawn they may not be my employees but their work (the mowed lawn) belongs to me. "

    The lawn already belonged to you before they mowed, of course it still belongs to you, besides, lawn mowing is not exactly a creative act. If you commission an artist to paint your portrait or a photographer to take you picture, you are paying for the physical artwork you receive, not the copyright on that piece of art.

    "Yes, a commissioned work is a work for hire, claiming that they weren't employees is irrelevant."

    It is VERY relevant. Copyright for a work automatically gets assigned to the artist except in a very few instances. One is where the artist specifically, contractually agrees to reassign copyright to another party. Another is when they perform creative work as part of their normal employment.

    "Unless the contract specifically sates that the work belongs to the artist, the work should automatically belong to the person who bought it. Just like if I buy a product from a store it can reasonably be assumed it belongs to me."

    Wrong, the artist is always the default copyright holder unless the contract specifically states otherwise. Owning a physical object is not the same thing as controlling the copyright on that object. Whether it is a unique, one-of-a-kind item like a painting or a mass-produced item like a DVD makes no difference. Even when the artist no longer possesses the original, they are usually still the copyright holder.

    "More examples of how broken our IP system This law was intended not to benefit the public but to benefit special interest groups which should reasonably raise questions as to the intended purpose of other aspects of our broken laws."

    Don't blame me, I'm not saying that's how the law should be; I'm telling you how the law currently is.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:59pm

    Since 1971 the USPS has been an independent corporation. Prior to that time it was a part of the USG, and its head, the US Postmaster General, was a member of the President's cabinet.

    If these works that apparently were created well before 1971 were works-for-hire, then almost certainly they would be in the public domain given the provisions US law concerning "Government Works". It is a longshot, but if the works were not works-for-hire that there is the possibility, however unlikely, that an exception to the "Government Works" provision could apply and the USPS could hold copyright in the works.

    While I have not researched the matter, it would be interesting to determine if the formalities required by the Copyright Act of 1909 were observed, including compliance with renewal of copyright terms.

     

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