I have found an old newspaper clipping from 1912 on Ancestry.com that I would like to print out and distribute. Am I legally allowed to do so, or is the clipping still held under copyright? Does the answer change if the newspaper is now defunct (The San Francisco Call)?

  • 2
    I think you have to worry more about Ancestry's policies.
    – user47
    Oct 9, 2012 at 23:31
  • @JustinY If the works are in the public domain then the copyrights no longer apply. What claims might Ancestry.com have over works whose rights have expired?
    – fbrereto
    Oct 10, 2012 at 0:12
  • 1
    -1 This is actually a good question by itself, and the currently accepted answer is way good good, but for a different reason (probably for a different question). Please consider either changing your question (so that it is limited to the San Francisco Call archives) or wait for an answer will satisify more inquiries about this topic.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 10, 2012 at 1:08

5 Answers 5


The San Francisco Call (among other papers) is available online at the California Digital Newspaper Collection. The copyright blurb on that site says

All newspapers published before January 1, 1923 are in the public domain and therefore have no restrictions on use. If publishing, quoting from, or otherwise reproducing the images from this collection, we request that you credit the CDNC as follows: California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, http://cdnc.ucr.edu.

For more information on copyright of images from this collection, see their about link.

All of this implies to me that you can just get a copy of the same newspaper from the CDNC and not worry about Ancestry's policies.

  • Assuming they have the same collection of Call editions, but yes I'd agree with you - thanks!
    – fbrereto
    Oct 9, 2012 at 23:41
  • They claim to have the San Francisco Call from 1890 to 1913. Here's the link Oct 9, 2012 at 23:43

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, you are not my client.

Your rights regarding clippings found on Ancestry.com and similar content-providing sites are limited by Terms of Service first, copyright second; their Terms of Service may limit your rights even if the clipping is free of copyright. Once you know the clipping exists, it may be relatively easy to locate the same on another site, but there you'll be bound by their Terms of Service...

There generally are multiple copyrights involved; there is the original content and publication, there is the photographing and digitisation of that content, and possibly some image manipulation to enhance the image (and recognise it as theirs...).

If you found an original paper in your attic, you would not have to worry about those Terms of Service, but would you'd still have to deal with copyright law, which is a topic unto itself. However, a quick answer to your second question; that a newspaper is defunct does not imply that all their content is in the public domain. You may need to track down the current copyright holder.


  1. The Terms of Service do not only restrict, but probably allow limited usage as well.

  2. Do not forget that you have fair use rights for copyrighted content.

  3. The page that shows the clipping probably mentions the copyright status, current copyright holder or collection provider.

  4. Articles elsewhere summarise copyright laws for various countries.

  • This is a useful answer, thank you. I'm struck by your comment that ToS supersedes copyrights when the former exist: I would have guessed the other way around as copyright is a federal statute (and would have authority over any US corporation's ToS). Do you have evidence to back up your claim? I realize Ancestry.com (or whatever other site) may have ToS that speak to these documents, but that doesn't mean they're enforceable...
    – fbrereto
    Oct 11, 2012 at 20:42
  • @frereto, the site provides a service under conditions you agreed to when you signed up. Your own transcription of a clipping they provide may be free of ToS limitations (read the ToS, ask a lawyer), but lacks the feel an old image provides. Oct 11, 2012 at 21:01
  • You entered into a contract when you signed up for the site. As long as the contract isn't in violation of the relevant law, it can include whatever restrictions it wants. It will almost certainly always be more restrictive than copyright law.
    – Tom Morris
    Oct 16, 2012 at 23:20
  • The ToS doesn't change the copyright, but it would allow Ancestry.com to delete your account if they were sufficiently angry with you. Ancestry is highly unlikely to know about or care about a single article printed and distributed among family members. I think they would be more concerned if, say, you downloaded a bunch of documents they spent time and money scanning and cleaning up and then uploaded them to a competing site. They can't claim copyright to a scan, but they can certainly delete your account over it. Sep 29, 2013 at 20:28

The real question here is "When does a copyright expire?"

About.com summarizes the situation in the US with this table:

  • Published before 1923 - now in public domain
  • Published from 1923 to 1963 - When published with a copyright notice © or "Copyright [dates] by [author/owner]" - copyright protection lasts 28 years and could be renewed for an additional 67 years for a total of 95 years. If not renewed, now in public domain.
  • Published from 1923 to 1963 - When published with no notice - now in public domain
  • Published from 1964 to 1977 - When published with notice - copyright protection lasts 28 years for first term; automatic extension of 67 years for second term for a total of 95 years.
  • Created before 1/1/1978 but not published - copyright notice is irrelevant - copyright protection lasts for the life of author and 70 years or 12/31/2002, whichever is greater
  • Created before 1/1/1978 and published between 1/1/1978 and 12/31/2002 - notice is irrelevant - copyright protecion lasts the life of author and 70 years or 12/31/2047, whichever is greater
  • Created 1/1/1978 or after - When work is fixed in tangible medium of expression - notice is irrelevant - copyright protecion lasts for the life of author and 70 years based on the the longest living author if jointly created or if work of corporate authorship, works for hire, or anonymous and pseudonymous works, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.

Given that your clipping was published before 1923, it is in the public domain. I'm not sure if Ancestry.com can make any claims against it -- the digital copy of the clipping may be a copyrightable work (IANAL). If this is the case, you at least have a reference that you could use to search for an alternative, unencumbered digitized version of the clipping.

If had been published between 1923 and 1978, it might still be under copyright, but that's only if it were published with a notice and was properly renewed. Various works from that period have fallen into the public domain because they were published without a copyright notice and/or the copyright was not renewed. If the publisher was defunct (like the SF Call), then it's likely the copyright wasn't renewed and the work is in the public domain.

Also, not that it's necessarily legal, but if the publisher is defunct, and nobody owns the copyrights, then who's to enforce them?

  • 4
    See Wikipedia, "Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp." for the US So. District of New York ruling that "exact photographic copies of public domain images could not be protected by copyright in the United States because the copies lack originality," and the oft cited quote, "where a photograph of a photograph or other printed matter is made that amounts to nothing more than slavish copying." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridgeman_Art_Library_v._Corel_Corp.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 10, 2012 at 4:11

The Legal Genealogist recently blogged on the topic of copyright and newspapers. However, you should also consult the terms and conditions of the website where you got the clipping.

How do you intend to distribute it and how many copies do you want to make? Copyright prevents copying without permission, so you could ask for permission.


The problem is not the copyright it is the Terms of Service. The newspaper itself is out of copyright so if you had taken your own image of an original it would be legal to distribute without any concern. However the contract you enter into when you sign up for Ancestry allow you to use THEIR images of the original ONLY IN THE WAYS THEY APROVE! This is the contract you sign as a member. This usually does not allow for any republication or distribution of the image. This is because the access to these documents is the commodity that Ancestry sells. It wouldn't make any sense for them to allow you to share their images because what they want is for your entire family to purchase access to the site via their subscriptions.

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