Are old book illustrations copyrighted?

When we turn the pages of old books, our eyes are often captured by the intricate and beautiful illustrations that accompany the text.

These illustrations, crafted meticulously with painstaking effort, not only breathe life into the narrative but also transport us back to the era when the book was published.

However, there’s a question that has been creating a buzz in the creative and literary world lately – ‘Are old book illustrations copyrighted?’

In this world of digital renaissance where everyone is a potential publisher, understanding copyright is essential.

Whether you’re an artist looking to recreate those nostalgic illustrations or a blogger wanting to pepper your post with images from old literary works, understanding laws associated with old book illustrations can save you from potential legal complications.

In this blog post, we will delve into the labyrinth of laws that govern old book illustrations.

We’ll uncover the intriguing world of public domain, understand the peculiarities of  terms, and learn the nitty-gritty of fair use.

Is Photograph from the Books Copyrighted?

If you’re asking whether photographs in books are copyrighted, the general answer is yes. Copyright law protects original works of authorship, which includes photographs.

When a photographer takes a photograph, they immediately own the copyright to that image.

This holds true whether the photograph is published in a book, on a website, or displayed in a gallery.

The publisher of a book usually obtains the necessary rights from the photographer to include their work.

This doesn’t mean the copyright is transferred to the publisher; rather, the publisher is granted a license to use the image.

Thus, if you want to reproduce or use the photograph for your own purposes, you would typically need to seek permission from the holder, often the photographer or their estate.

However, there can be exceptions to this rule. For example, older photographs can be in the public domain, meaning the copyright has expired, and the image can be used without obtaining permission.

Similarly, some creators choose to release their work under a Creative Commons license or similar arrangement, allowing for broader use of the image under certain conditions.

It’s important to respect laws to avoid legal implications. If you want to use a photograph from a book, it’s best to consult with a legal expert or contact the holder for permission.

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Public Domain Images Copyright Infringement

Public domain images are free from any restrictions because their copyrights have expired, have been forfeited, or are otherwise inapplicable.

This means they can be used by anyone for any purpose, including commercial use, without needing to seek permission or provide attribution.

However, there are several factors to consider when using public domain images to avoid possible infringement:

Are Old Book Illustrations Copyrighted?

  1. Different countries have different laws: The term of copyright differs between countries. An image might be in the public domain in one country but still be under copyright in another.
  2. Public domain doesn’t cover trademarks: An image can be in the public domain, but if it contains recognisable logos or trademarks, you could potentially infringe on trademark law if you use it in a certain way.
  3. Personality rights: Even if an image is in the public domain, it could still infringe on the personality rights of the individuals depicted. For instance, using someone’s likeness for commercial purposes without their consent can infringe on their right to privacy or publicity, depending on jurisdiction.
  4. Derivative works: Works that are based on public domain images but that include substantial new creativity are protected by their own copyright. So, you can freely use a public domain image, but if someone else has created a work based on that image and added significant original elements to it, you cannot use that derivative work without permission.
  5. Not everything online is actually public domain: Just because an image is freely accessible online doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the public domain. It’s important to verify the status of an image before using it.
  6. Public domain databases: There are several reliable online databases that offer public domain images, such as Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay, Unsplash, etc. Still, it is the user’s responsibility to verify the status of each image.

Copyright Notices for Book Copyright Infringement

A copyright notice is typically included in a book to inform readers that the work is protected by copyright law.

While this notice is no longer required under U.S. law (since the U.S. joined the Berne Convention in 1989), it can serve as a deterrent against potential infringers and provides helpful information about the owner and the year of publication.

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This notice indicates that the work is copyrighted, provides the year of first publication, and identifies the owner of the copyright.

If you believe your copyrighted work has been infringed, it’s best to consult with an attorney who specialises in law.

They can guide you on the best course of action, which could include sending a cease-and-desist letter to the alleged infringer, filing a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) if the infringement occurred online, or filing a lawsuit.

A cease-and-desist letter typically includes the following information:

  1. Your contact information
  2. Detailed identification of the copyrighted work that has been infringed
  3. Specifics of the infringement (where it was found, etc.)
  4. A demand for the infringing activity to stop
  5. A deadline for the recipient to respond

Filing a DMCA takedown notice requires similar information, but must also include a statement that you are the owner (or authorised to act on behalf of the owner) of the exclusive copyright that is allegedly infringed, and that the information in your notice is accurate.

Again, it’s highly recommended that you seek legal counsel if you are dealing with a potential  infringement issue.


In conclusion, old book illustrations can be copyrighted, depending on factors such as the year of publication, the lifespan of the illustrator, and the laws of the country where the book was published.

However, many older illustrations have entered the public domain, which allows them to be used freely.

It’s important to research and confirm the copyright status of each illustration before using it, and when in doubt, seek legal advice.

Frequently Asked Questions

 Are all old book illustrations in the public domain?

Not all old book illustrations are in the public domain. The copyright term varies, but in many countries, it lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.

If the copyright has expired or was not renewed, then the illustration may be in the public domain.

If a book is in the public domain, are its illustrations also in the public domain?

Typically, if a book has entered the public domain, its illustrations have as well.

However, there could be exceptions if different copyrights apply, such as when the illustrations were added in a later edition that’s still under copyright.

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Always check the copyright status of each component of the work.

Can I use illustrations from old books in my own work without permission? 

If an illustration is in the public domain, you can use it without obtaining permission.

If it’s not in the public domain, you’ll need to obtain permission from the copyright holder. Failure to do so could result in copyright infringement.

 How can I find out if an old book illustration is copyrighted?

You can start by looking at the copyright notice in the book itself, which may provide information on the copyright status of the illustrations.

For U.S. works, you can also search the U.S. Copyright Office’s records. If you’re still unsure, consult a legal expert.

What happens if I use a copyrighted illustration without permission?

Using a copyrighted illustration without permission can lead to legal consequences, including potential fines and injunctions.

If you’re found liable for copyright infringement, you may be required to pay damages to the copyright holder. Always seek permission where necessary.