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Old British Cigarette Cards 1900-1946

Posted: Thu Sep 16, 2021 3:19 pm
by davetherave
Hi everyone,

This is my first post. I'm a little unsure as to what the situation is regarding the old British cigarette cards from around 1900 - 1945. The types I'm interested in are football themed and also war themed. Im not looking to reproduce and resell these back onto the trading card market but they would be part of something I'm making and reselling.

I originally came across these old cigarette cards on an American museum website that offers most of its catalogue as public domain copyright free images to use in any way, but the details for the cigarette cards mentions that it cannot source the original copyright ownership, so the responsibility is with the user. Can anyone provide details as obviously some of these cigarette companies went out of business whilst others were sold on and some are still running. Examples include imperial tobacco, players, ogdens.

Re: Old British Cigarette Cards 1900-1946

Posted: Fri Sep 17, 2021 8:58 am
by AndyJ
Hi davetherave,

As far as I am aware, the artists who produced the illustrations for the cards were not identified and so the copyright term which will have applied at the time they were issued would have lasted for 50 years from the year of publication. Only a card published after 1944 would have been affected by a change in the law in 1995 which added a further 20 years onto this term of protection for works which were still in copyright at the time. This means that a card featuring artwork by an anonymous artist published in 1945 will still remain in copyright until the end of 2025.

However, if the artist was named or their identity can easily be discovered, copyright in his or her illustrations will have lasted for the lifetime of the artist plus 50 years from the end of the year in which he or she died. This period was similarly extended to 70 years after death for any work still in copyright on 1 July 1995. From this you can see that assuming that the majority of cards were the work of anonymous artists, the cards are unlikely to still be in copyright today, whereas those from named artists almost certainly will still be protected. The law on copyright on the USA prior to 1976 differs considerably and it is certainly possible that many of the cards issued in the USA, whether or not the artist was anonymous, are now out of copyright because they were not registered/re-registered for copyright there - this was a formality that only applied in the USA for works published there.

So when dealing with cards with artwork by named artists which originated in the UK or Europe you need to think about getting permission; for those from the USA you can probably trust the American museum if they say that copyright has lapsed.

As for locating the owner of copyright today, since you will mainly be concerned about former UK companies, it should be a bit easier to track down the ownership. Assume that any company which has gone out of business will have had their assets, including copyright and trade marks etc, bought up by another company. The chances are, therefore, that today's big tobacco groups such as BAT and Imperial Group will own most of the rights in the old cards. For any cards for which you can't find an owner today, you can apply for an orphan works licence which will indemnify you against a claim from a modern day owner, should one appear later.

Given that some original cards are very collectable, you will need to make it clear when asking for permission that you only want to reproduce the cards for incorporation in a very specific item, and that you are not intending to produce replica cards.

I hope the helps you.

Re: Old British Cigarette Cards 1900-1946

Posted: Fri Sep 17, 2021 9:38 am
by davetherave
Hi Andy,

Thank you for your very informative reply. That has helped greatly. Just out of curiosity, I've seen some of the cards I wanted to use on ebay and other online sites being sold as originals and also reproductions. For example there seem to be hundreds online from various sellers that say reproduced in 1990 (for example) by imperial publishing. Some sellers say commissioned by us. What would these mean?

Re: Old British Cigarette Cards 1900-1946

Posted: Fri Sep 17, 2021 1:20 pm
by AndyJ
Hi again Dave,

There are quite a few companies both in the ­the USA and the UK with Imperial Publishing as part of the company name, but none as far as I can see, have anything to do with the Imperial (Tobacco) Group (see here for a list of Imperial's UK subsidiaries). Not that that would matter if the cards themselves were no longer protected by copyright. Someone who is just producing facsimile reproductions of the original cards would not be entitled to any new copyright protection because their versions would lack any new additional artistic content. So even though they may claim some sort of quasi-protection, this will not resurrect a copyright which has lapsed. I have no idea what 'commissioned by us' is supposed to signify!

So long as you are satisfied that these reproduction cards which are being offered are not recent creations (ie since 1944) and that no artist is named as being responsible for the artwork on them, you can safely use these images for your project without needing to get permission, just as is the case with old genuine original cards.