Walmart Says You Can't Scan That 1925 Family Portrait, Because Copyright Lasts Forever

If you combine a mindless and petty tyrant with Walmart’s draconian photo rights policies, you get a story like the one Boingboing reported today, where a woman in Florida was told she couldn’t scan an 80-year-old portrait of her dead grandmother, because its copyright is surely held by the studio that took it—and copyrights last forever.

If you’re going to scan old photos at Walmart, you may want to brush up on copyright basics, since clearly Walmart isn’t bothering to train its employees.

As a general rule of thumb, if the work was made before 1989 and doesn’t have a copyright symbol on it, it’s probably in the public domain. For works created after 1989, the symbol isn’t required to enforce copyright. The “Is it Protected?” tool at is a simple way to determine the most likely state of a published work. We’re not sure how much of that applies to photos (any lawyer-types want to weigh in?) but the U.S. Copyright Office seems to indicate that the photo would have to have a permanently-affixed or printed copyright notice on it if it was created before 1989.

Or, you could take the advice of some Boingboing readers, and either find yourself a scanner to use at home, or write your own copyright notice on the back of the photos before bringing them into the store. We wonder: is it breaking copyright law to put a fake copyright on a public domain photo for the sole purpose of asserting your right to make a copy of it? Discuss!

Update: As rubinow notes in the comments below, bring the proper form with you when you go to Walmart. This gives them the legal protection they want, and then they won’t refuse to print your photos.

“Wal-Mart: you can’t scan century-old photos of your ancestors because copyright lasts forever” [Boingboing]
(Photo: Getty)

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.