What's the copyright status?


I was trying to find some high resolution scans from the monochrome version in the Pictorial Key when this caught my eye. It has probably been linked/discussed before but I wonder if it's accurate. Does US Games have a valid copyright claim to the artwork? All artwork? How come the Pamela - A version is in the public domain given it's almost identical with the US Games version?


There is no one simple answer. The answer varies depending on what country you are in, what version of the art you are using as your source material, the kind of use you will be making of the images, and how much money you have to spend on lawyers (should the need arise). That said, the article you link to is a good basic overview. It doesn't capture all of the possible ins and outs but it does hit the major points.

In making their version, US Games made (mostly very minor) changes to the art. For example the card back, some of the details of the lithography, and details of the overall coloring were changed. That makes their version a derivative work, which they hold a copyright on, in addition to the copyright on the original version. Anyone working from the US Games version needs to get the rights to both the original and the derivative. Someone working from an original PAM-A version only needs to worry about the original 1909/1910 copyright.


But wouldn't the US Games version be a derivative of RWS being a derivative of Pam-A? And wouldn't they be able to claim copyright on Pam-A based on their claim on RWS? Seems very much like copyright abuse, especially if Pam-A can be seen as a separate item despite the near identical similarity.

By the way, does anyone know if the black and white drawings from the Pictorial Key are in the public domain yet? I'm guessing that they should be since the Pictorial Key is.


US Games has a license to use all of the Rider versions of RWS, including Pam-A. We don't know the exact details of that license, but it presumably is fairly inclusive. That means they can make either exact reproductions or modified versions. They own their own modifications outright, and can use the original work under license. They can pursue copyright claims on their own work directly and can pursue copyright claims on the prior versions on behalf of the original owners based on their license of the prior versions. This is all fairly standard practice.

In this case there is some ambiguity about the status of the original copyright, while the copyright on the modifications is clear. The ambiguity apples to everything Pamela worked on, the color cards as well as the black and white line drawings. Various people have various opinions, but nothing can be said for certain unless there is a court decision. Within that ambiguity you need to form your own judgement about the risks.

There are reasonable arguments that the line drawings are more likely to be in the public domain than the color cards. But those are just opinions, a court might decide either way. You can look at the positions others have taken on this issue, but ultimately there isn't any single answer, and you have to make your own decision.


I recently stumbled upon that copyright discussion as well. After having done some further online research I am pretty sure that US Games has no copyright on the original RWS tarot any more, while US Games' own modifications to the RWS are a different matter. However it is true that nobody knows how a court would decide. If I had to bet, I would give US Games less than 10% chance to win a case though. And I am sure they wouldn't risk a court case for that very reason. There don't seem to have been any court cases about the RWS copyright in the past either. Or does anyone have better information than me?

If I find time tonight I will post a long answer with all the considerations about the RWS copyright I have found so far.


Here is the result of some online research.

This post is about the copyright for the original RWS tarot only, not for alterations made by US Games like new coloring, new titles, tarot boxes, trademarks, etc. The RWS tarot was first published in the UK in 1909. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot with black and white line drawings was first published in 1911. The artwork was a hired work by Pamela Coleman Smith for R. A. Waite. Waite died in 1942, Smith died in 1951.

RWS-copyright in the UK

The duration of copyright at the time the RWS was published was 42 years from the date of publication, according to the 1842 copyright act. By applying this law the RWS would have been in the public domain since the beginning of 1953, the Pictorial Key since 1955.

Later implementations, the 1911 act (holding for work published from July, 1st 1912) and 1988 act in particular, would only apply if their rules about copyright duration were to be treated as retroactive (that means applying to cases from before the implementation of the law). Most online sources I found seem to assume this, but since British law, as far as I know, is generally not retroactive unless stated otherwise, there should be some regulations or parts of the law saying so explicitly. There is for example a regulation from 1996 stating in which cases the new copyright duration rule would apply (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1995/3297/regulation/16/made). If the RWS copyright would still have existed in any other EU countries at the end of 1995 then the extended copyright duration from the 1988 law would be revived in the UK as well. There might also be other reasons for the extension of the copyright period that I have missed so far. This would mean 70 years from the author’s death, and the RWS would only have been in the public domain since the beginning of 2013.

There is a claim by US Games that since the RWS tarot consisted of a joint authorship of Smith and Waite the copyright duration would last for 70 years past the year Smith died instead of the year Waite died. By applying the 1911 copyright act this would be true as hired work in this act counts as a joint authorship as long as the hired person worked as a freelancer. The RWS copyright would only expire in 2021. However this claim is valid only if the joint authorship rule in the 1911 act would have to be applied retroactively as well. I have found no indication for that.

Conclusion: It is most likely that the copyright for the RWS/Pictoral Key expired at the end of 2012. Assuming that the copyright will only expire in 2021 is much less likely. The facts I found are not enough to be certain though.

ETA (correction):: British copyright law appears to be retroactive. That means RWS copyright expires in 2021. See post #38 in this thread.

RWS-copyright in the EU

Due to several international agreements the same rules as in the UK apply.

RWS-copyright in the US

The UK copyright duration has no relevance for the US.

“Under current American law, both domestic and foreign publications published prior to 1923 are in the public domain.” (http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july08/hirtle/07hirtle.html). Some exceptions are mentioned here (http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm) none of which apply to the RWS tarot. This view is also held by Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rider-Waite_tarot_deck). There is no ambiguity in any of the online sources I found.

However, US Games has made a couple of claims to argue in favor of a longer copyright duration for the RWS. These claims are described in more detail on the Sacred Texts site (http://www.sacred-texts.com/tarot/faq.htm).

The GATT allows copyright restoration for foreign works under a number of circumstances. This only applies if, among other conditions to be fulfilled, “The work was in the public domain in the US because the work did not comply with formalities imposed at any time by the US law” (http://www.publicdomainsherpa.com/copyright-restoration.html). I don’t think that this applies to work prior to 1923 anyway. Regardless of that US Games has successfully claimed US copyright for the RWS, therefore copyright restoration does not apply.

US Games also refers to the Berne convention, which contains a copyright protection for foreign work of 50 years past the author’s death. When the UK later extended the copyright duration to 70 years this did not matter in the US because of the “rule of the shorter term” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berne_Convention#Copyright_term) and the Berne convention not being retroactive.

Conclusion: There is no doubt that the RWS and Pictoral Key have been in the public domain in the US long since.


The Copyright Term Extension Act, or Sonny Bono Act is also known as the "Mickey Mouse Law" because it was formulated under heavy lobbying by corporate interests. The danger is that Disney would lose copyright over things created during Walt's lifetime, crumbling their empire. I foresee that the battle isn't over yet and as the different deadlines approach corporations with political clout will start to lobby once again to keep their draconian power.


Conclusion: There is no doubt that the RWS and Pictoral Key have been in the public domain in the US long since.
Good luck with that. It seems more likely that it holds up in court till 2021, I think it is, whatever we all believe. There's a post by Teheuti somewhere with details. But AFAIK if you OWN a Pam, and scan that, you are in the clear, as you aren't using any of USGames' work.

I think the black and white drawings are legit to us..


Good luck with that. It seems more likely that it holds up in court till 2021, I think it is, whatever we all believe. There's a post by Teheuti somewhere with details. But AFAIK if you OWN a Pam, and scan that, you are in the clear, as you aren't using any of USGames' work.

I think the black and white drawings are legit to us..

To be clear, I am only talking about early editions, unaltered by US Games or other publishers, like the Pam decks. Also my conclusion you quoted is about the US only.

As for the UK I found a post bei Teheuti, that might be the one you had in mind:

Last year I read up on British copyright. It seems that without a written contract stating that it is a work for hire and that all rights are relinquished, that British law cases have gone in favor of allowing copyright protection to all the creators of a work, their inheritors and to the assignee (usually publisher). American copyright states that all works published before 1923 are in the public domain (with only a few complicated exceptions). I am NOT a lawyer but I did read through the decisions on several similar cases.

The multitudinous editions by different publishers of Pictorial Key to the Tarot makes it clear that that work is deemed out of copyright (at least in the U.S.) and so the black-and-white illustrations are in the the U.S. public domain. Dover books (who are very familiar with public domain as it's their speciality) published a CD containing the RWS color cards, so you can go to that as your source.

The critical question is again, whether the treatment of joint authorship following the 1911 UK copyright act also applies to older cases before this act was implemented. So is the rule about joint ownership retroactive to cases before July, 1st 1912 or not?

From what I read I also don't see why the Pictorial Key should be treated other than the Pam decks, but again, I might miss a point here.

Teheuti, if you read this, do you happen to have a few online links about the joint ownership in the UK at hand, that you could post here? That would be great. In the meantime I'll try to dig out more sources myself.


Nice work trzes. From what I understand, US Games has also trademarked the title Rider-Waite as an added protection. That implies to me that they're trying to find ways to protect their IP beyond copyright expiration. That can be both a good practice and a bad practice.

Then again, I wonder if pressure to acquire a license from them can be anything more tangible than a psychological effect? An average person getting letters from companies and lawyers of barely comprehensible legalese threatening all sorts of legal action would be scared into submission. But if you ignore those threats, you force the company to either go to court or ignore you. If the work is really in the public domain then it's not in their interests to actually go to court since they are selling licenses so if the work has been in the public domain for a number of years they might face all sorts of action from licensees for doing that.

I guess a lawyer in the US or UK who wants to make a name for themselves could take on a case and break a monopoly with little personal expense and big fame gain. Just saying.