Orphan Images- what are your rights?

July 31, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

In March of this year I published a blog post The Corner Store that looked at practices of some local retail stores that offer photo developing and printing. One of the key points in this post was that an image may not be printed by the store if an employee feels that the image is professional and you can not prove that you made that image. 

Many of us have at some point in our lives have had a professional photo taken. This may have been a portrait shot, or it may have been at a wedding. Many years may have passed since that image was made, and suppose while un-cluttering your attic you discover an image that you really like.  The image may have faded a little, but that can be fixed- correct?  You want to do the right thing and reach out to the person who originally made the image. So, you start searching the internet for what you think was the name (or business) of the photographer and nothing turns up. 

Checking with your parents, it turns out that they do remember the image, although they remember hearing that the photographer had passed away last year.  Is the image now in the public domain so you can do with it what you will? Not really, since the copyright still may probably exist with the photographers estate. If you wanted to restore, copy and enlarge the image the law would still require you to contact the photographer's estate.  If you run into a dead end, the work is considered ORPHANED and can not legally be reproduced or even restored.

The real world problem would be if you were able to get it restored, or printed and then uploaded it to social media or even had the image published in a (Bridal) magazine. If a family member or a former business partner of the photographer recognized the image, a case for copyright infringement may be headed your way.  There may be some relief in sight with constantly morphing laws surrounding copyright, but for now it may be safer to enjoy the original image or talk to an attorney who is versed in orphaned images.


- Bob Barford is an published photographer based out of Southern Pennsylvania.


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