Nov 182008

Google recently announced that Life had published their photo collection on their system. It’s a project Life was working on while I was still at Time Inc, and it’s beautiful collection of photography. Most of the Life photos have been buried in the basement of Time Inc. for years; limited digital versions were only available internally to Time Inc. on clunky systems. It’s great that the images are now available to everyone in the world.

Buzz Aldrin on the MoonI’m curious about some aspects of the Life collection. The collection includes a large number of images from the Apollo missions with a copyright attributed to Time Inc. From visiting the NASA web sites, I’ve always thought that the NASA images were either in the public domain, copyright NASA (and by extension the people of the United States), or copyright another space agency. It was a bit surprising to see images like the classic image of Buzz Aldrin next to the American flag with a Life watermark and Time Inc. copyright, especially when the original image is available at the Great Images in NASA web site. (High resolution images are also available.) I’ve dropped a note to the NASA public affairs office at NASA for some clarification; it’s entirely possible that NASA and Time Inc. signed an agreement regarding the copyright years ago. One of the wins of having the Life collection available is that there are images now published that were not previously available on NASA’s website. For example, I was unable to find this specific image of Earth from Apollo 10 on the NASA site, even though there are other images from around the same time at the Kennedy Space Center site.

Elle MacPherson with a Happy ClownTime cover of Michael Jordon by Walter Iooss Jr.

I was surprised to see that Life is selling physical copies of images with celebrities. I assume they are sharing the proceeds of the physical copies with the photographers if they do not own all of the rights, but were they able to secure model releases from celebrities? For example, you can purchase a framed copy of the Time cover image of Michael Jordan by Walter Iooss Jr., or a red-carpet photo of Elle MacPherson with a happy clown. (Surprisingly, the Elle MacPherson photo is uncredited.) Historically, one of the problems photographers and organizations have had in monetizing their photo collections has been issues of photographer rights and model releases, so I’m curious how Life managed to research and clear the photos.

Overall, having the Life collection online is a good thing for professional photographers, researchers, and the public at large. The photography of Life would not be possible without the fundamental freedoms and innovation of the United States, and it’s great that they are able to share their fruits of their labor.

 Posted by at 2:18 pm

  One Response to “Life photo archive now available”

  1. Sam –

    The NASA photos, as well as others by people like Mathew Brady and Dorothea Lange are public domain, which was one of the original scanning targets when the collection started to digitize. I would guess that the copyright notice was just placed on every file from the collection, as the original system could only ID pictures as staff, contract or freelance and as far as rights go, public domain is the same as staff. As for the celeb pictures, they are careful to market their sales as “fine art prints” which exempts them from claims to right of publicity. It looks to me like they’re using the original PICCOL scans, so “fine art” may be a stretch. Good luck at Google!

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