Sunday, April 02, 2006

Fear the copyright

I know this is old news to most, but Wal-Mart no longer allows customers to make copies of photographs deemed to be made by a professional. I knew this, but the last time I needed photos quickly, a Wal-Mart employee let me make prints of a scanned studio photo from the late 1880s. When I recently tried to make prints of two other scans -- one from a photo taken before 1900, the other from about 1900 to 1910 -- I was told they couldn't sell me the prints.

Consider this from the San Diego Union-Tribune:

"Also adding to the confusion is the change to copyright law Jan. 1, 1978. Photos taken before that date are subject to different copyright rules from photos taken afterward."

"The law allows customers to copy professional photos commissioned before 1978, unless the photographer and the customer had an agreement to the contrary, Moilanen said."

Sorry, but I'm not exactly inclined to track down the descendants of a specific photographer to see if they have any of his old business records, with the goal being to see whether he and my 3rd great-grandparents had some sort of contract regarding reprints. And that's if the photo is even labeled by a studio.

To me, the bottom line is obvious: Wal-Mart doesn't think much of and/or trust their employees and they've created a blanket policy to avoid being sued. The issue of date isn't up for debate; the photo center workers will not print the photo. Period. I may test this policy soon by taking in other old photos to see what happens.

More recently, according to one listener of CNET's Buzz Out Loud podcast, at least one Staples (or one overzealous employee) has a similar view regarding photocopies. If you download the March 31st podcast (feed), skip ahead to about 28:07 to hear the story of how obituaries from the 1880s weren't allowed to be copied. (You can also go to Podzinger and look for the time stamp of this discussion -- they show 28:17, but the story begins slightly before the terms I used for the search. This is a stream, so there's no need to download the entire MP3.)

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