HomeCopyright and the Race Riot photographs

Copyright and the Race Riot photographs

We've seen many photographs from the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma and its aftermath.  One of the questions that has not really ever been looked at closely is the issue of copyright.  Generally the photos have been tossed around as though they were copyright free and in the public domain.  Since the event was a major occurance in the city's history, perhaps there is some value in sidestepping the issue of copyright, but there is still an issue here - or so I believe.

Now, I must admit, I am not a lawyer, and have only a working knowledge of copyright based on my work as a librarian, which causes me to vere to the conservative side on this question.

So what is the situation?

As I understand the current laws, a photograph is under copyright from the moment it was taken, to the photographer (unless it was specifically a work for hire, and in that case it's to the photographer's employer).  If it was published, then the normal mess of copyright laws and when those things come into public domain come into effect.

If it was not published, then it remains under copyright until 70 years after the photographer's death.

If the photographer is unknown, then the work is an "orphan work" and under copyright until 120 years after the date of creation (which in the case of the the riot will be the end of the year 2041).

An image that was illegally published, or published without the permission of the photographer may not have lost it's copyright protection.

In the case of the Tulsa Race Riot, many photos were taken, and put away into private collections.  Other photos were published in the newspapers (the Tulsa Daily World, and the Tulsa Tribune, among others; and some were published in the Mary E. Jones Parrish book Events of the Tulsa Disaster, in 1922.  These are now in the public domain, cleanly and clearly.

A number of photos were also reprinted and effectively published as postcards to comment on and to commemorate the events.  Since we don't know that permission was given for these, we probably ought to assume they are still under copyright.


Since the postcards were a known item in post-riot Tulsa, we could draw the conclusion that the phtoographers had a reasonable chance and an obligation to assert their copyright.  This doesn't seem to have happened, so publication could be assumed to have been with the tacit permission of the photographer.  Again, not a lawyer here, and one might very well chose to disagree with me on this.