Writing on photographs (museum)

I tried searching the archives and Google, but I couldn’t find anything. I am a member of a small-town museum. The museum also has a ‘guess who’ or ‘guess where’ photo in our weekly newspaper. All the photos in the paper have a large line of sloppy writing crediting our museum, as in 'courtesy of . . . " That line takes quite a bit of space and sometimes it is written across the entire image.

I always figured someone wrote that on there long ago, but while visiting the museum recently, I learned the person submitting the photos to the paper has been adding the credit line.

Some of us are beginning to work on a small book project in which a number of photos would be used. I questioned whether, for those photos with no credit line, would this line be written across the images. The museum director said it would to protect our copyright. I find this ridiculous, since it is very unlikely anyone would reproduce these photos, and the copyright has expired on nearly all of them anyway. Besides, the book we are planning isn’t anything we expect to make a ton of money on.

I tried searching for museum do’s & don’ts regarding writing on photographs, but I couldn’t find anything. So, which is it? Okay to write on photos or not? (I don’t mean the photos in your family album.) Is it generally accepted by museums that they scribble a credit line across photos in their collection. I can see using a watermark type of credit line, but not taking the ball point pen to them.

Am I off base here? Does anyone have any Museum Photos 101 they can direct me to? Any curators out there?

Protect your copyright from who? How the heck did the museum gain copyright to some old photo that someone gave them? Protect the copyright to ensure what? That nobody can see them without permission?

This gives me a headache.

Well I presume it is only display copies that he is defacing and not the originals.

Here is how the Australian War Memorial deals with copyright.

Here is a search of their image collection as you can see some new images are copyright, the older ones public domain.

Their advice on conservation of photos.

An example of their work.

Our town has the Sheldon Peck homestead as its primary attraction. On the occasion of its opening I found, while wandering the grounds, a trade token from a nearby grocery store. Offering it to the docents, with an explanation of where I found it, I was blown off. “We’re only interested in artifacts from the 1840s, not the 1920s.”

Okay, I was trained as an archaeologist and I know it was found out of context, in dirt turned over when they landscaped the grounds, but it was considerably more historically interesting than their aluminum siding, handicapped ramp, and Lexan windows.

They seem to think if we don’t protect our copyright (which I don’t believe we have) others would be free to copy the photos and make money. The thing is, all of our collection is historically significant only to us. There is really nothing to interest out-of-towners – no war battles, no famous people, it’s just stuff of our town.

The director didn’t even believe me when I stated that just because we possess a photograph, that doesn’t mean we own the copyright.

I scoured Google in search of something like ‘general principles of handling photographs for museums’ which doesn’t seem to exist. To me it’s common sense that you don’t scribble on your photos. And ‘don’t ask’, these are not display copies I am talking about. These are the originals. In some cases, they are likely the only copy of the image.

And if I copied your old photo on coffee mugs that (due to a great YouTube video) becomes a huge fad and makes me rich… that would hurt you how?

I don’t have an answer for you, but a suggestion. If the museum insists on doing this, perhaps they could write or print whatever they want to write on a transparency sheet (like the ones for overhead projectors) and then lay that over the photos when they scan them in. That way they get their watermark and the original picture isn’t damaged in the process.

Absolutely it is common sense. Copyright be damned, this is vandalism! :mad: Isn’t there someone higher up you can take this to, maybe someone in city government? It sounds like your “director” is a totally clueless incompetent. He should be fired!

Photo doper here

Gently remind them of two things. First, for the book the copyright notice on the copyright page will protect any copyright you may have. Second, for the newspaper you should remind them that newspaper printing is fairly poor, and it’s almost impossible to make high-quality copies from a newspaper page. If they really want to include a watermark the transparency idea someone mentioned is fine. There’s no need to deface photos, whic pretty much destroys the photos’ resale or trade value.

Now, as to the legal reality, which you shouldn’t bring up to your bosses because they won’t believe you. The museum does not own the copyright to the photos. The copyright either belongs to the original creators of the photos or persons whom the creators may have transferred copyright to, or the copyright has expired and the photos are in the public domain. Merely coming into possession of a photographic print does not in any way give ownership of copyright.

The photos at your museum are most likely orphan works. So the museum is probably legally liable for the infringements it’s committing, but a possibility of legal action so low as to be non-existent.

Yeah, if they’re writing on the originals it’s pretty appalling. My wife is a professor of music history at UCLA who specializes in old manuscripts and when I told her what your museum was doing her immediate response was “Oh God, no!” Historically people have written on photographs for a variety of reasons, but it is not an acceptable archival practice in this day and age.

This might be useful. It’s the Library of Congress websitedescribing protocols for handling photographs. You might specifically point out this paragraph near the end under the heading “Handling”:

Good luck.

The newspaper would be more than happy to write a caption under the photo crediting your museum for providing the photo.

Every state, at least I think every state, has a museum association of some kind. Generally, these associations exist to present workshops, networking opportunities, and idea swapping for museum professionals and volunteers. I highly suggest that you guys look into such an organization in your state. You will find it very helpful.

No, you (when I say you I mean your organization) do not have a copyright on any of the photos in your collection. Unless your museum actually took the picture of course.

It is never acceptable to write across the face of a photograph, period. For the past six months I’ve been working in collections management at a small museum and here’s how I accession photographs. I assign it a number, I write that number in pencil in small numbers on the back, and I store it properly in archive quality sleeves and boxes.

It isn’t much of an issue for my museum. When I worked at an archive we just required that anyone who used a photo from our collection cite the source of the photo. The local paper likes to run photos of old postcards from our local history and they cite in a caption that they got it from our collection.

The person at your museum who is marking the photographs is devaluing the collection and must be stopped.

If you need any advice, feel free to PM me. I only have six months of professional experience but I do get to take all sorts of fun classes and I’ve got a pretty good grasp of how we’re supposed to do things. I also realize that there’s a world of difference between the academic ideal museum and the reality we face with budget, staffing, and other limitations.


Each museum has what it calls a mission statement and they base all of their collection, their outreach programs, and everything else they do to upholding that mission statement. If you came to my museum and wanted to give me that I’d have to turn it down. Of course, I’d try to direct you to another museum that would love to have something like that.


Thanks for your replies. You gave me some good ammo.