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Personally, I love old children's books. The artwork is phenomenal. Recently I saw more than one person selling Goldilocks and the 3 Bears. I do not intend to take public domain stories from one hundred years and put my name on them. I would like to though, use illustrations that are public domain, and update the story to modern times. I have come across a few websites of Public Domain books, and even a site that sells the photos on a disk for a fee. But then I think, if they put the illustrations on a disk and sell them through their company, how can I use them? Wouldn't the company selling the disk have copyright protection? Thank you.

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I am not a lawyer, but I believe the answer is NO, they will not have rights to the illustrations.

Publishing something using public domain material does not change the public domain status of THAT material. if I publish a story and my character sings "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", the original words, I don't suddenly own the rights to a public domain song.

What you need to look for, though, is any modifications they may have made to the images; like adding a "watermark" or something.

There is a similar issue with recipes. The Supreme Court ruled long ago that Recipes cannot be copyrighted. Not even original recipes. So when people write a cookbook with recipes, and it says the book is copyrighted, what exactly is copyrighted? Any text or photographs or commentary that is NOT "Recipe".

Personal anecdotes, original photos or illustrations, original descriptions, and things like that. But not the actual recipe, the ingredients and instructions.

Similar with the product you want to buy. The public domain pictures cannot be copyrighted, unless they are altered enough to be clearly different from the originals.

Again, I am not a lawyer, this is my understand of the copyright laws as told to me by a lawyer. But if you aim to publish your work, then your publisher will have lawyers that know copyright law. Or you can hire an attorney.

But I think you have nothing to worry about as far as proceeding with the work, I believe if the pictures are public domain now, then without alteration they are public domain forever.

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  • That is a good point about watermarks. Not because it confers some legal status but because it may make the image unusable. I've seen deals where a company provides the public domain images in low res versions and says if you want the high res versions without a watermark, you have to pay. I don't like that practice, but it makes business sense at least. Oct 10, 2023 at 14:34
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First, you didn't say what country you are in. Very important.

In USA if the illustrations came from a book published in the USA before 1927, you almost certainly have nothing to worry about.

If the source of your public domain illustrations published in a pre-1927 book were high res photographs later taken by someone else, probably you are still ok. Bridgeman vs. Corel lets you do that.

Here's a tip. Go to wikimedia commons and see if the image is available there.

I am an ebook publisher and use public domain images all the time. The important thing is whether the original art was published in a book before 1927 (in USA). There are different rules about paintings before 1927 if they were not published in a book.

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As far as I understand it:

  1. You may use a public domain illustration (e.g. a painting in a museum).
  2. You may not use a photo or reproduction of that illustration (in a catalogue, on a postcard, on the museum website, in a database).

This means that unless you

a. own the original illustration,
b. have taken your own photo of it, or
c. have access to an illustrated book that itself is old enough to no longer be protected by copyright,

you are out of luck.


As @StuartF has noted in a comment, the legislation is different in different jurisdictions. You should always consider consulting a lawyer when it comes to legal questions.

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    The details vary from country to country when it comes to what is protected and what can be reproduced; US law is more permissive than English law, for instance. But this isn't the place to give legal advice.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 7, 2023 at 11:48

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