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Did you know... what rights does one have to the image of the poster one purchases?

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Added: 05/25/2015

Here is a question we have been asked many, many times over the years, with only slight variation:

"What rights does one have to the image of the poster one purchases? In other words, if I buy a poster and want to reproduce it in a book, on the web, etc. from whom do I have to get permission? All the time I find  reproductions of posters in books and on the web without any credits or indication that someone other than the person who did the reproduction actually owns the rights. I wonder about this because I once tried to get a couple of color photocopies done of a couple of my lobby cards to send to someone who has a web page and the copying place said it would not do them as they were stated to be copyrighted. Any information you can give me on this would be greatly appreciated. Can you educate us on this?"

There are two huge gray areas in poster collecting. The first is the ownership of the posters themselves, since so many of them state on the bottom in small print that they are the property of National Screen Service (NSS) and must be returned. Many poster collectors have the nagging fear that someday someone from NSS will show up at their door and demand their posters back! I think we can dismiss this fear. The posters have been sold and auctioned on the open market for decades, and even the studios themselves have spent millions of dollars buying posters.

The second area is who owns the copyright to the posters' images. There have been countless arguments presented on this issue for many years, and there is no clear answer that covers every poster out there. There is no indication I have ever seen that pre-1950 posters were ever copyrighted in the first place, and even if they were (which I highly doubt) they would seem to now be in the public domain, since the supposed copyright holders have never defended their claim against the countless repros that have been sold. There have been a couple of major court cases on this issue, and in both cases the person who was sued won. But those decisions are not absolute for ALL poster images.

And before you rush out and make a set of Monster Mugs or Cowboy Coasters, remember that any of the studios can always launch an expensive lawsuit against you, and you may not want that headache. Plus it has been sadly proven that when enough money is at stake, laws can be retroactively changed. So even though you might have a legal right to make repros now, a new law might be passed "re-copyrighting" public domain items.

So I'd advise you to think twice before making copies of poster images for merchandising purposes. But as far as books are concerned, then the concepts of "fair use" and "educational value" come into play, as well as whether the images were copyrighted and protected in the first place, and also the issue of WHO would be getting damaged, and in what way. I would think you are almost always surely on safe ground if the reproduction is for your own private use, or if you solely reproduce items in your own collection, or if it is solely in a print medium, especially a non-profit one, But I would suggest you consult a lawyer, before launching any enterprise involving the use of poster images.

As far as the Internet goes, every site treats any sort of images (not just posters) as public property. I constantly see the images from my own 43 books reproduced all over the Internet, and only a small percentage of the sites ever ask permission or acknowledge where they got the images. This is an issue that is sure to be resolved in the next years, and, sadly, I imagine it will go in the favor of big business for such matters always seem to end up going in that direction.

As far as "copy places" go, they are just "erring on the side of caution". They lost a major case when it came to copying textbooks (for college course use) and so now they are gun shy about copying ANY sort of published items.


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