I have the good fortune of having a site that ranks relatively high in search engines. But this also means that I have the misfortune of easily attracting the attention of anyone out there who might object to something on my site, or who might want to claim that I'm infringing their copyright by my use of some material. So, in the past, I've had National Geographic
threaten me, plus I've had complaints from the Time Travel Mutual Fund
and the Human-Flavored Tofu Company
(see below), among others.
Now the British Science and Society Picture Library
has joined this list. They've sent me a cease-and-desist letter
demanding that I either remove all images of the Cottingley Fairies
from my site, or pay them a licensing fee for their use.
This raises an interesting legal question. The Cottingley Fairy images were taken in 1917 and published (in England) in 1920. They were also published in America. The earliest American publication of them that I'm aware of is the American edition of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Coming of the Fairies
(George H. Doran Co., New York, 1922).
U.S. law states that everything published in America before 1923 is now in the public domain. Therefore, in America the Cottingley fairy images are in the public domain. But the law in the U.K. is that the images remain under copyright for 70 years after the death of the photographer. The two women who took the images died in the 1980s, so the images will remain copyrighted in Britain until around 2050.
So do the British copyrights have any legal status in America? I'm not sure. The closest parallel I can find is the case of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, which is copyrighted in the UK, but is in the public domain in the US. Efforts to enforce the UK copyrights in America have not been successful
. When Project Gutenberg made the text of Peter Pan freely available on its site
, it simply added a disclaimer noting that the text was public domain in the U.S., but not elsewhere.
So for now I'm telling the Science and Society Picture Library that the images are remaining exactly where they are. I've already traded five or six emails with them about this, and they don't seem willing to give up their claim. But I don't think they have a valid case, so I'm not budging.