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Publishers Need Photo Permissions
The crazy world of permissions and copyright
I’ve published several books lately that include photos. This means that I, as the publisher, must obtain permissions to use the photos. The area of photo permissions is tricky, but let’s try to work through the issues.
Copyright v Public Domain
The first question is whether or not the photo is copyrighted or in public domain. This question is common to all creative works, so what we say here would apply to literary works, illustrations, music, photography, or any other creative works.
Copyright is the term used when the federal government protects your work and doesn’t allow anyone to copy it or use it without your permission. Public domain means that the copyright term has run out, or the copyright holder has given permission for anyone to use it as they like under a Creative Commons license, or it was created by a federal agency so it generally belongs to the public.
Notice that a copyright notice is not required for works first published after March 1, 1989. The created work is automatically copyrighted whether there is a notice of it or not. Registering the work with the Copyright Office is not required, but does bring certain legal advantages.
70 Years After Death. For works published after 1977, if the work was written by a single author, the copyright will not expire until 70 years after the author’s death. If a work was written by several authors and published after 1977, it will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author dies.That means you should research the photographer to find their date of death, then add 70 years. If it falls within that copyrighted range, you must obtain permission from the photographer or their estate to use the photo.
However, because of copyright rule changers, there are some works in question for the following reasons:
Allowing works to fall into public domain. Creative works are copyrighted for the creator’s lifetime and for 70 years, allowing their family to benefit from their work, too. The idea is that this will encourage creators to create, knowing that they can reap the financial benefits for a long time. However, eventually, it’s agreed that the creator/their family have gotten the benefit deserved, and the work reverts to public domain.
Works before 1977, however, remain in copyright for 96 years. Now, in 2023, works created before January 1, 1926 are public domain.
Renewal Required 1926-1964. However, works created between 1926 and 1964 fall into another category in which the creator “could” have filed for renewal in the 28th year of the copyright. That is works from 1926-1964 become public domain UNLESS the owner filed for an extension. The only way to know is to search the copyright at Copyright.gov.
This work is dedicated to the public domain. Some works have this designation instead of a copyright notice.
Creative Commons Licenses. This is a relatively new designation that allows individuals or corporations to share works in a specific way. The seven levels specify how you give attribution, whether you may modify the works, and how you must share the resulting works. Read more about these options here.
Federal agency. When a US Federal Agency employs photographers, their work is considered public domain. For example, NASA photos are all public domain, but you should read their Media Usage Guidelines for the finer points. For example, the NASA logo is reserved for official NASA sites and publications. They alos have links to the various image and video libraries of materials. Or see the US Fish and Wildlife Service image galleries.
This is a photo from the US Fish and Wildlife Service of the oldest known wild bird in the world, Wisdom. I have used these and other photos from them as the basis for the art in WISDOM, THE MIDWAY ALBATROSS. And I continue to use them as I talk about the book and the bird. Wisdom is over 72 years old (banded since December 6, 1956.)
If you use photos in your book, you must obtain photo permissions! Or, if you use a copyrighted photo as the basis of an illustrations, you must obtain permissions.
My book, FIELD NOTEBOOKS, is about how scientists use notebooks to record observations by creating lists, narratives, descriptions, informational pieces, captions, labels, and more. I used images from the Smithsonian Museum, with permission.
This spread is about William (entomologist and zoologist and zookeeper) and Lucile Mann (writer and editor) who traveled to Asia to collect animals for the US National Zoo. It involved three photo permissions: the couple in safari gear, Lucile feeding a baby tiger, and an image of Lucile’s typed diary of their trip. Each required a permission.
If you’re interested in using historical photos, first try to locate the copyright holder.
Museums. If it’s a museum or historical institution, they likely have a permissions policy, so search for that. If they have standard forms, it’s easier to just use those to request use.
Newspapers. Newspaper archives typically have permission policies, also. If not, find a contact person to ask.
Individual. This is the hardest category, sometimes, as you must search for contact information. If the person is deceased, you must find their next of kin to request permission from the estate. I recently ran into this and had to search for a photographer’s estate. I found the photographer’s obituary, which listed family members and where they lived. Although it was about ten years old, when I searched the son was still living in the same area. The son readily agreed to allow the photos to be used in a forthcoming publication.
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Photo Permission Fees
Often, photo permissions are granted only if you pay a fee. But be aware that fees are sometimes negotiable. I’ll often emphasize that this is a children’s educational book, and that will move along the negotiations.
If your book requires photos, then, budget for permissions fees. I’ve seen authors collect dozens of photos and then juggle which photos to use based on an overall budget. They may choose an expensive one if it’s crucial to the story, but then balance it with a couple free photos or public domain photos.
Usually, you will include a section on photo permissions on the copyright page or in the back matter.
Researching Historical Photos
Photos of events for the past 100 years are everywhere. Start with the Library of Congress Photo Collection, the free open access photos from the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Public Library Digital Collection, and other large repositories of historical photos. However, also look at local historical society collections and library collections. For example, look at this Dust Bowl photo from the Denver Public Library collection. This is the back matter from my book, EROSION, and includes a photo of Hugh Bennett, the scientist who knew what to do when the Dust Bowl hit, Lincoln Memorial in the middle of a dust storm, and a dramatic photo of a car running before a storm. These add weight and verisimilitude to the story.
EROSION was name a 2021 Notable Social Studies Trade Book by the Social Studies Teacher’s Association.
Photo Permissions Forms
You need the photo permissions in writing! Use an institutions photo permission form when possible. For your own form, ask your lawyer for a boiler-plate contract to use. Some forms will ask for a time frame for using the photos, payment terms and more. Keep your form as simple as possible!
Finally, use a service like signnow.com to send a digital form for the copyright holder to sign. It’s easier than sending a pdf that they must sign, scan and send back.
Photos are a great addition to children’s nonfiction books. Don’t be afraid to ask permissions or to negotiate fees. The worst that can happen is that permissions are available, but cost too much for your budget.
The best that can happen is a great book!