There is a community group that would like to protect a mural painted in a local high school. We are unsure of the year the mural was painted, nor the original artist of the mural. It has been there as long as many of us can remember.
We were thinking copyright, but we are unsure if we can find the original artist, nor if they are even alive anymore. It has stood so many years we are sure it’s been repainted many times to keep fresh.
Copyright in a work before 1978 would depend on its having a copyright notice. That should give you the author's name. But that would not control the physical embodiment anyway. Unless it's quite recent that wouldn't be 'moral rights' to control alteration or destruction of the original. A local landmark commission might be a better bet.
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There may be certain rights which may be applicable under 17 USC 106A:
You should discuss with an intellectual property attorney in a private consultation.
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Just based on what I've read on this thread it is all but certain this work would be considered in the public domain at this point. So there really is no way to protect it.
If you need clarification, I suggest that you consult with a lawyer in private and discuss your objectives in more detail. You can start by calling around to several for a free phone consultation, get some insights then pick the best fit to work with.
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Generally, situations like this cry out for discussion.
In this particular instance I see you're from Skowhegan. The town's decision to join every other municipality in Maine by finally turning away from The Indian as its school mascot has already been the topic of a lot of discussion and a conclusion was arrived-at. Murals on the High School walls depicting The Indian are a small part of a broader process.
I encourage you to work to build bridges as the transition to a modern mascot moves forward.
All good luck to you.
I represent lenders, landlords and creditors. This answer is based on the viewpoint of a creditors-rights attorney. It's possible that a debtor / tenant / consumer lawyer would provide a different answer or focus on different nuances of the situation. More importantly, it is impossible to provide a reasoned legal opinion in response to any brief internet writeup. My response here is not, and is not intended as, a reasoned legal opinion or legal advice to anyone, including the person who posed the question. Even so, I hope that my comments are some help.
A mural painted in 1926 on a high school wall by high school art students, and which has never had copies made and distributed, is “unpublished” under the 1909 Copyright Act and so, under the 1976 Copyright, is protected by a copyright lasting for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. If we assume the last surviving student author was born in 1909 (seventeen years before 1926), lived a normal 80 year lifespan, and therefore died in 1989, then the copyright in the mural will expire in 2059. I think my colleague's conclusions otherwise are very likely wrong.
How that plays into your group’s desire to "protect" the mural can only be evaluated by your own Maine-licensed intellectual property attorney. Good luck.
The above response is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.
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