Can I use old books for collage?

(Ohio, United States of America)

I had heard that if you were going to use pages from a book in your collages or altered art, you had to use a book at least seventy-five years old because of copyright laws. Is this true? I have an old Bible that I obtained from a book sale. I don't know how old it is, but I considered using the pages for collage. What do you think?

That is a very interesting question, and perhaps not quite as simple as it might seem.

Firstly, of course, we are not lawyers, so you can't depend absolutely on what we tell you. However, we are in a position to give you practical advice that a lawyer may not be able to.

Our first instinct was that there were no copyright issues involved. Nobody was making a copy of anything, and I began to wonder whether I'd been unduly cautious in my previous article on using copyrighted images in making artist trading cards. However, it turns out that the law also covers the distribution, adaptation and exploitation of copyrighted works, and I wondered whether the use of pages from a book in altered art or collage might indeed be controlled by this legislation.

The law on copyright, and what is, and what isn't, in the public domain, is a little complicated, and varies from country to country, but most countries have now adopted the Berne Convention of 1886, which attempts to harmonise all the different national laws, so that broadly speaking a copyrighted work enjoys the same protection throughout the civilised world.

The basic situation seems to be that all written works are in copyright for either fifty or seventy years after the death of the author, although in some countries (and cases) it may be longer. Having said this, it would appear that (in the United States at least, and with a few exceptions) all works published before 1923 are now in the public domain.

The situation is complicated by the doctrine of fair use in the United States, and similar provisions in other countries, which permit the use of a limited amount of copyrighted material for certain purposes, which include research and study, review and criticism, parody and satire. Interestingly, if it is held that the copyrighted material is being ridiculed it enjoys less protection than it would otherwise.

So where does this leave you, the artist?

From the purely legal point of view, my best advice would be that you stick to using pages from books that are clearly out of copyright, and in the public domain, because of their age. The Bible itself is obviously in the public domain, but later translations may still be protected.

My limited study of the provisions of the doctrine of fair use leads me to believe that use of copyrighted material in works of art is probably not permitted, unless the intention is to ridicule. This must surely be considered an anomaly in the law!

From the practical point of view, on the other hand, I feel that it's unlikely that you would be pursued for the use of a few pages of an old book, even if it's not as yet in the public domain.

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