Vintage Art and Copyright Laws: The Importance of Compliance

copyright copyright laws customer experience ethics trademark trademark laws vintage business

Today's post is quite different from what I usually blog about, but it is an issue that I've been thinking a lot about, so I figured, what better way to get it off my chest than to write about it here.

I've noticed, over the years I've been involved with this enterprise, that there are competitors in this field who either haven't studied copyright laws like I have, or who think, just because something is decades old, that, even if it is protected by copyright, they could likely get away with reproducing it and making it available for sale anyway. This is dead wrong, and it is also bad for the customer.

Here's an analogy: would you ever buy a stolen T.V. set if you knew it was stolen? Of course not! But the problem here is that it's impossible for the average consumer to be able to distinguish if what they are buying is, in fact, stolen. Copyright laws are complicated, and the internet has only made them more so in recent years.

Just to be clear, I am not an attorney, and I have never been to law school, but I have diligently studied these laws for more than ten years, so I think I'm definitely qualified to discuss this.

Here are a few specific issues around this that I've come across. I'll explain each one, and hopefully shed some light on this morally dense topic.

1.) "It's not protected here, so I can sell it wherever I want to."

Dominion Graphic Arts has a very complex system where availability on certain products is restricted to the United States only. The reason for this is simple: a U.S. publication might still be copyrighted in other countries, particularly if the author died less than seventy years ago. (This is the standard term for most countries outside the U.S., but even this may vary.) But, on the other hand, U.S. laws state that anything published before 1926 is no longer protected. Example: I do not sell any James Montgomery Flagg artwork outside the U. S. because he died in 1960, which means that (with the exception of Canada and possibly Australia, which have a 50 year term,) his work is still protected elsewhere.

But many other vintage art stores and vintage publishers do not take this into account! They think, erroneously, that there's a one-size-fits-all approach to copyright across all jurisdictions. (Although, for the rule of the shorter term, this is sort of true, but not all countries apply this.)

2.) "So what? They'll never catch me."

There's no sincerity in this at all. These people are just doing what they want to do and they don't care that they are hurting other people. True, you might not get caught, but that's not even the point, is it? It almost sounds like, for instance, if a pedophile were to say that they might harm a child if there were no law against it. Moral violations go beyond whether or not the law says you can or can't do something, and to do anything that would harm another person or entity just because you think you can get away with it shows a total lack of conscience. Frankly, this is appalling. (As a side note, the reverse is also true. Remember when slavery and segregation were actually laws?)


3.) "This ad is not protected by copyright, so I'm cool."

Not so fast! Have you looked at all the other laws that apply? For ads, there's such a thing as trademark law. You have to make sure that the trademark is also dead, which can be a lot trickier. Here's an example: How many times have you seen reproduced Coca-Cola ads for sale? I've seen them many times, and I'm tired of it. Coca-Cola is a thriving company, and their team of lawyers would probably sue the pants off anybody who tried to expropriate their still-alive-and-kicking trademark. And in response I would say yes. Do it!

4.) "Well, I found it online, so..."

This actually goes a little bit beyond copyright, and into the territory of basic ethics. So I won't belabor any of the obvious copyright implications here, because I think by now you probably know what my views are on this. While it's true that some things online are copyrighted, (something that, surprisingly, some people aren't even aware of,) the reverse is also true. So yes, technically you could reproduce and sell something you found online if it's legal for you to do so, but would you want to? This practice, to my mind, is shady at best, and implies that whoever does that is only in it for easy money.

One of the things I take pride in is that the vast majority of the art I offer in my catalog was scanned from original period materials, and, except in very rare instances where it is absolutely necessary, I never download any of the art I sell here. I don't mind the extra expense and hassle of buying or borrowing an image and scanning it on my computer, or taking it to Kinko's to have it scanned for me. Additionally, I am very passionate about researching more on the art. Who created it? For what publication? Why was it created, and is there any backstory? Not to mention the fact that I spend a lot of time restoring these works of art and getting rid of any age-related imperfections such as fading, scratches, etc. Some vintage art businesses don't do any of these things! To them, it's like a big lottery. The winner takes all, and to heck with the law--or the customer experience!


So that pretty much sums up my thoughts on adhering to the copyright laws when running a business of this nature. After all, they are in place to protect the artist, and they also protect you. If you have any additional thoughts on this issue, please don't hesitate to write a comment below. I always welcome spirited dialogue on these critical topics and would love to have a healthy discussion with you.

Talk to you soon.

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