Deepening the Conversation

thinking about questions of authority, technology, learning, and 2.0 in academic libraries

The good, the bad, the ugly: the Life archive and copyright.


There are *so* many posts I’ve written in my head in the shower the last month, and you can tell that very few of them have made it to the page. For that, I’m sorry. Let’s blame it on transition issues, and I promise to get everything back in gear after the new year.

I had heard a few weeks ago about the Life photo archive being hosted by Google, and didn’t have much of a chance to look it over until a post on Jezebel sent me there yesterday. I spent some time poking around, and fell in love. It’s an unbelievable resource, with images from all over the world, about every conceivable topic, and dating back to 1750 (looks like photos go back to the 1860s, and lazy librarian just checked Wikipedia, and learned that daguerreotypes came about ~1837, and photographs in 1839, so perhaps Life has photos to the 1840s, who knows…).

So, yes, excellent resource, go play, have fun! But that’s not the point of the post. That’s not what has been eating away at my attention these past hours, distracting me and driving me a little crazy.

Are these images under copyright?

Can I show undergrads the Life archive  in the workshop I’m developing about using online images responsibly?

How can two massive companies put an image archive online in 2008 and have no clear copyright statement? Make no statement about usage of the images? Is ti possible that Life opened up and exposed its archives without knowing their copyright status? Do they not care? Do they violate any copyright they might hold by being so ridiculously stupid as to assume normal mortals are going to spend time determining the legal uses of the images? Can we embrace this last comment as force of law?

I’ve been discussing this with some friends and we have many many opinions, but no definitive solution. (I also posted the question to LibNews, but that is a list moderated by batches, and I am beyond frustrated with that kind of list). So I bring this to you and ask the questions: are these images under copyright? Is it possible that some are and some aren’t? Are users of the images responsible for making that determination themselves? Is there any way to declare this acceptable behavior in this day and age?


2 thoughts on “The good, the bad, the ugly: the Life archive and copyright.

  1. Images in the LIFE Photo Archive are available for personal, non-commercial use only. Photos taken by LIFE photographers and most other photos are protected by copyright and cannot be used for any other purpose without permission. All requests for the photos should be referred to LIFE’s agent, Getty Images.

  2. Jeff, thanks for the quick response! Is this information available anywhere in the archive? And does it also apply to photographs taken before 1860 (my rough estimate of 70 years post a 70 year life span of photographer)? It seems like the stuff before that would appear to be public domain.

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