What to do if I’m trying to find out if an image I have found online is protected from any copyright laws?

UPDATED: Sep 17, 2014

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What to do if I’m trying to find out if an image I have found online is protected from any copyright laws?

The image was created 90 years ago in Japan by a beer company. Who would I seek out to answer my questions? The company does not seem to exist anymore. I simply want to alter the image to represent a product that my company sells. Or can I have an artist recreate the image but alter it so it not the exact image?

Asked on September 17, 2014 under Business Law, Wisconsin


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 8 years ago | Contributor

If the image is copyright protected, you can't alter it and use it: copyright includes the right to control "derivative" works and "adaptations."

If the  image is as old as  you say, it is highly unlikely to still be copyright protected. (Copyright law and how you calculate duration of protection have changed over that time, so it's difficult to be 100% sure, but the odds are strongly against copyright still existing.) Furthermore, copyright is by country: if it is an image created and used in Japan but not the U.S., that does not mean that it would be copyrighted here (and you'd have to reference Japanese copyright law to see if it was copyright and still is in copyright).

Finally, if the rights holder (the company) no longer exists, then there may be no one who could enforce copyright (though if there is any successor in interest, like a successor company, they might have the right IF it is still in copyright after all this time in the first  place).

To sum up: to be certain that it's not in copyright, you'd have to have an intellectual property attorney do some research for you. But even without doing that, based on age, country, and company being out of business, it is very likely you  could use this image.

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