Is a scan of a public domain newspaper article also in the public domain?

+5 votes
I found an article on published in 1911 and thus in the public domain. There are two photographs with faces of two of the people detailed in the article that I would like to use in their profiles (not yet created):

As the scan is a conversion of the article from print to electronic medium, but does not otherwise modify the article, is the scan image also public domain?
in Policy and Style by Joseph Bui G2G Crew (310 points)
recategorized by Ellen Smith

4 Answers

+5 votes
Best answer
Since these photos were published in the United States before 1925, it seems to me that the photos are in the public domain in the United States (where the newspaper was published and where WikiTree is based). The act of scanning the photos would not change the copyright date. So I would think they are free of copyright.
by Ellen Smith G2G Astronaut (1.2m points)
selected by Joseph Bui
I read that photos in print media might be licensed and therefore have separate copyright from the article text. NY Times and Washington Post websites (and print) often give credits as part of photo captions, but these have no credit listed. I was focusing on that problem, but clearly the photos were published over 95 years ago, so thank you.
+1 vote
Check's policy.  GenealogyBank refused my request to post a sketch found in a 1908 article on their site.
by Charles Avis G2G6 Mach 2 (28.8k points)
+3 votes

The selected answer (Ellen's) seems to be the right answer, but I was curious about what Ancestry considered to be copyrighted (as is owned by Ancestry).  So I asked them on their chat thing...  Here's a summary (edited slightly):

Me: Most of the records on Ancestry are old (say over 100 years), and therefore in the public domain. Does Ancestry consider scans of public domain records to be copyrightable? If so, why? If someone posts a scan from Ancestry online, does Ancestry consider that to be breaking one of the terms and conditions? If so, which one? Thanks.

A: I'm posting our copyright policy below, for your review.

I hope that helps!

Is there anything else that I can do to help?

Me: There seems to be no claim of copyright by Ancestry in that policy. It seems to just be Ancestry defending itself from copyright claims against Ancestry. Is that a fair assessment?

A: I'm not very familiar with copyright policies regrettably, so I'm not exactly sure and I don't want to respond incorrectly. I apologize. The article is what I can offer on this subject.

Me: Are you a real person?

A: Yes, my name is *****.

Me: Have you read the copyright policy?

A: I have. But if there is something that Ancestry hasn't included in it, I don't want to make any assumptions. When our members have questions of this sort, we refer them to the article so that they can get Ancestry's exact stance. I don't want to risk saying anything incorrectly on this subject.

Me: OK... So, the policy is very short. Could you maybe read it and then tell me if what I'm assuming - that images from Ancestry are not under copyright - seems to be correct?

A: Please give me just a moment. I'm reaching out about this now to see if I can find a solid answer for you...

Please email to get a solid answer on this. The will be able to advise you further with these types of questions.

I truly apologize that I can't be of more help with this.

Me: Thanks, I guess...

A: You're welcome. Is there anything else for now?

I was surprised when I actually read the copyright policy.  I expected the normal thing that says something like 'All images are copyrighted, and may not be used, blah, blah, blah', but it doesn't say that.  It just says, 'If you think we're violating your copyright, let us know...'

by Ian Beacall G2G6 Pilot (102k points)
I agree with the above claims about copyright, but wouldn't this be an Ancestry terms of service issue and not a copyright issue?  That is, is it permissible to obtain an image from their site and post it on another web site?  I don't think there's any media conversion involved to clutter the question -- if the image came from, it was already in electronic format.

Disclaimer:  I have no legal qualifications whatsoever, but I'm not aware of any challenge that's ever been made for using such an image, and the Ancestry rep apparently didn't pick up on the issue.  If it were me I wouldn't hesitate to use it.

Actually, I've just taken another look at their terms and conditions, and maybe it's covered here:

1.3. Use of the Services

In exchange for your access to the Services, you agree that you will:


Not resell the Services or resell, reproduce, or publish any content or information found on the Services, except as explicitly described in these Terms;

+2 votes

Good work by Ian: they don't seem quite sure themselves.

However, if you go to

you see a link Terms and Conditions which goes to an Ancestry page. This includes the following:

2. Content

2.1 Ancestry Content: The Services contain photos, videos, documents, records, indexes of content, and other content provided by Ancestry (“Ancestry Content.”). Except for WebSearch records, which are governed by the terms of the third parties that host the records, all Ancestry Content is owned by or licensed to us and may be used only in accordance with these Terms, including Ancestry Content that may be in the public domain (“Public Domain Content”). You agree:

  • To use the Ancestry Content only as necessary for your personal use of the Services or your professional family history research;
  • ...
  • Not to distribute, republish, or sell significant portions of any Ancestry Content; and,
  • To contact us to obtain our written permission if you want to use more than a small portion of individual photos and documents that are Public Domain Content.

So it does seem there are restrictions on scans, even though the originals are public domain. Perhaps you can use a few ("a small portion"), but not an unlimited number unless you seek and they give permission.

by Jim Richardson G2G6 Pilot (246k points)
Well found, Jim.  It's an interesting topic... Basically, Ancestry's content is in the public domain, but, in theory, if you do post scans from Ancestry online, they can close your account.  I don't think they could do any more than that, could they - like sue you or something?  But then they give you the option to share scans to Facebook or Twitter... Hmmm... It's all a bit grey, isn't it?

The topic was extensively discussed and debated last year on G2G.  See this link for more info.

Be cautious of "Basically, Ancestry's content is in the public domain".  While much or most of it is, Ancestry does host copyrighted material like books and material covered by U.K. Crown copyright.

Thanks, Kerry. I should have guessed that people had discussed this before (and maybe even asked Ancestry).  I don't want to open it all up again, but... From the discussion, it seems that images of American records are public domain and free to use, but British ones aren't, as the rights to them are held by the Crown?  (But Ancestry can provide links to share the records via email, Facebook or Twitter...)

There was a holiday today in the U.S. but I'm not referring to the obvious one.  It was also public domain day.  Everything published in the U.S. in 1925 (and earlier) is now in the public domain.  The rules after that vary.  See Public Domain Day 2021 for more info.

With the availability of Ancestry's free links to records, I think many feel less of a need to upload to Wikitree public domain documents found there.

Yes, completely different rules apply to many U.K. documents.

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