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Q: Autograph Copyright Law ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Autograph Copyright Law
Category: Business and Money > Consulting
Asked by: olliehcohen-ga
List Price: $2.00
Posted: 08 Mar 2003 03:14 PST
Expires: 07 Apr 2003 04:14 PDT
Question ID: 173430
I have had my autograph book signed by a celebrity. Am I allowed to
copy that autograph and sell it or do I have to get permission from
the person that signed it? Is this different for different palces around the world.
Subject: Re: Autograph Copyright Law
Answered By: librariankt-ga on 11 Mar 2003 16:02 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi olliehcohen!

Before I continue with my answer to you, I first want to state that I
am NOT an attorney and I do NOT give official legal advice through
this service (and indeed, according to our terms of service, no one at
Google Answers is qualified to do so).

I worked for the copyright committee of one of the local universities
for a year, and taught the library copyright classes there and at my
present school.  In addition, I consulted with an intellectual
property attorney (my spouse) on this question.  Here's the skinny:

1: In general, unless the autograph was accompanied by some creative
doodle, message, or is extremely flourish-y, it is not protected by
copyright law.  This is because copyright law only protects the
creative expression of an idea or fact.  A signature is not generally
considered "creative" unless it's really something else.

2: Trademark law would only protect the autograph in cases where the
person's signature is immediately recognizable and linked with the
person or a product.  Think of Jenny Craig or John Hancock.  Those
signatures have become iconographic in our culture and are more than
just signatures.

3: According to the attorney, it would be difficult to argue that you
should be able to retain control over your signature if you gave it
freely to a person with an autograph book.  This is because autograph
books are widely-recognized items that have standard uses, and because
celebrities who do not want their signatures spread around can easily
just NOT sign the book.

4: However, you cannot do something with the signature that would be
illegal (like forging checks, etc.).

5: Have you considered whether people will really want to pay money
for the reproduced signature of a celeb?  In general there is a market
for the original autograph, but not often for a copy.  This may be
because the copy could always have been forged...

6: Copyright law is generally consistent from country to country
(according to the Berne Convention mentioned by highroute-ga below). 
Trademark law is also fairly consistent in the Western world, but I
have no clue how the nuances might change in non-European/N. American

Again, I want to caution you that I am NOT a lawyer, and that the
lawyer with whom I consulted does not know all of the details of your
situation so could not give official legal advice either.  If you are
at all concerned about your situation and plans, consult an attorney. 
Intellectual property attorneys are often happy to discuss a situation
for a "free hour" - this way you get a sense of who they are and they
might actually bag a client because of it.

- librariankt

Request for Answer Clarification by olliehcohen-ga on 13 Mar 2003 02:16 PST
Brilliant. Thank you very much for your help. That was great. I guess
then if I have a copied signature/autograph on a photo that I own, i
could sell it freely. Is that right? Ollie

Clarification of Answer by librariankt-ga on 13 Mar 2003 17:48 PST
Hi Ollie -

I think you are probably in the clear WITH REGARDS TO THE AUTOGRAPH in
terms of copyright and trademark (tho you would probably need to make
explicit that the signature is not original on the copies you sell). 
However, the copyright of the photo that you mention might become an
issue.  Copyright belongs to the person who TOOK the photo, not
necessarily to the person who owns a particular instance of it. 
Therefore, if you are hoping to sell a reproduced signature on a
reproduced photograph you need to take into account the legal
ramifications of ownership of the creative content of the picture, not
just the signature.  If you took the picture, then you own the
copyright and are probably okay.

Again, let me reiterate that I am NOT an attorney and that the above
does NOT constitute legal advice, only the opinion of a librarian. 
Before you make any plans that could land you in legal hot water I
urge you again to confer with a lawyer.


Request for Answer Clarification by olliehcohen-ga on 14 Mar 2003 01:25 PST
I suppose the next question is to find out who the photographer of a
particular picture that I purchased from ebay is. I could ask the
celebrities agency to see if they know. I could post the picture on
the web and see if anyone knows who took the picture. I could ask the
person who I bought the picture from i suppose.

Hard one that. Any ideas. Ollie

Clarification of Answer by librariankt-ga on 14 Mar 2003 06:07 PST
Hi Ollie -

Tracking down the owner of the copyright on the photo will probably be
challenging, but I think you've got good ideas for how to proceed.  If
the photo is being marketed professionally, there might be something
on it to indicate copyright ownership?  Also, if it's a standard
headshot it might be owned by a company rather than an individual
(e.g, MGM)...

I wish you luck!

- librariankt
olliehcohen-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $10.00
Thank you so much for your help. It was great. Ollie

Subject: Re: Autograph Copyright Law
From: highroute-ga on 08 Mar 2003 06:48 PST
I'm not an attorney, and I suggest that this question should best be
answered by an attorney with familiarity with copyright law. But I'd
hazard a guess that an autograph would be considered to have been
"created" by the person who made it. That person therefore holds
copyright, even though he or she gave that object to you. You would
need permission from the copyright holder to reproduce it. You could
sell the original work, but that would not affect the copyright; it
would still be held by the creator.

The copyright law that holds in the Unites States is international law
under the Berne Convention and it applies in all countries that adhere
to that convention. There are special considerations for older items.

You can learn about copyright on the Web site of the US Copyright
Office, at

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