We’re all about questions today on Quad Royal. Or rather, one question in particular: just how much of what is sold in the poster department of eBay is in fact legal?
The reason I’m asking is that, I was playing with the eBay app on the iPad, and so stumbled back into their bottomless pit of poster reproductions. Normally there’s a whole set of clever filters and searches (operated and maintained by Mr Crownfolio) which means that I don’t even notice that these items exist. But on the iPad, none of this is set up, and so an idle search for ‘vintage poster’ reminded me of the sheer volume of prints, giclee prints and A3 photocopies that are out there should you want them.
They range from reasonable quality,
to ones where even the seller isn’t convinced about the reproduction.
These posters are meant to be affordable reproductions of vintage posters that are rare and hard to acquire elsewhere. There are more expensive and higher quality prints out there. Our posters look great on the wall but may not stand up to a thorough examination. I fully admit the small print may be blurred and slight pixelation may occur on certain prints. These are fun items, not works of art.
Despite that write-up, he is still selling them. By the hundreds every month, judging from his feedback.
But I’m not asking philosophical questions about the relative values of reproductions versus originals this time. I’m just wondering how legal these are?
The basics of copyright are quite simple, that if an artist died after 1945, their work is protected for 70 years after their death. Which means that if a seller is selling a print of a 1950s railway poster (for £4.99, printed on a photocopier or bubblejet printer), there is a reasonable chance that they are infringing copyright somewhere along the way. The example above, incidentally, is by Jack Merriott, who died in 1968).
But what happens after that? Do you need to be the legal owner of a piece to have the right to reproduce it? Let’s take this 1923 poster by Grainger Johnson as an example.
No one seems to know much about him and his biography, so we will be generous and assume it is out of copyright. Does that then make it fair game for the eBay copyists? Or do they need to own a copy of the poster in order to have the right to reproduce it? I don’t know, and I would like to.
The next question is whether the nature of a commercial contract changes copyright too? (This link seems to suggest it does). So if a poster is commissioned by Shell, or London Transport or British Railways, do they still own the rights over the image? And for how long – for the same 70 years as the artist or until the company ceases to exist?
In other words, can these reproduce this 1930 Charles Burton as much as they like on their bubblejet printer, or should London Transport be consulting a lawyer?
Finally, is this also true of Crown Copyright, in particular where this applies to the huge number of World War Two posters which are being reproduced?
Questions, questions. But can anyone out there help me answer them?