Commons:Collective work

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Le Moniteur algérien 27 January 1832. Shows the layout of the journal.

A collective work contains the contributions of several authors, assembled and published under the direction of a legal entity or person who owns the copyright in the work as a whole. Standard examples are newspapers, magazines and encyclopedias. Contributions may include text, images and other media. Typically each author creates their contribution independently. The publisher may arrange and adjust the contributions to harmonise them with the overall work.

This page suggests guidelines for page images from collective works. These page images should not be uploaded in an attempt to bypass copyright restrictions on non-free images or text, but low-resolution images that may contain non-free content should be acceptable in some cases.

Legal concepts[edit]

Cover of La Plume (1898) illustrated by Alfons Mucha (1860–1939). Shows the illustration in context.

The copyright laws of many countries cover publications that hold text and images from several authors, including but not limited to newspapers, magazines, anthologies and encyclopedias. The laws define what is meant by a "collective work", define who owns the copyright in the overall work and in the individual contributions, and define the durations of these copyrights. The definitions and laws vary considerably from one country to another.

The laws usually distinguish between ownership of the collective work as a whole and ownership of the individual contributions. The publisher may only have the right to publish the contributions within the context of the collective work. The individual authors often retain the exclusive right to publish their work elsewhere. Copyright in the collective work usually expires a set number of years after publication or, less often, after the death of the last surviving author. Copyright in an individual contribution may last for a longer or shorter period, so it may be legal to copy the collective work as a whole, but not to extract and separately publish individual contributions, or vice-versa.

  • In copyright regimes where the publisher acquires full rights to the contributions, and where copyright lasts for a defined duration after publication, the status of a collective work and all its elements can be normally determined from the publication date. It should be assumed that the publisher has renewed copyright for the maximum allowed duration unless there is positive evidence to the contrary. China and the United States before 1977 are examples.
  • In regimes where copyright in the collective work lasts a defined duration after publication but an author may retain the copyright in their individual work, which lasts for a defined duration after death, the simplest approach is to assume the authors all retained their copyrights and treat a page from a collective work as a collection of individual works. These must all be in the public domain for the page to be stored in Wikimedia Commons.
  • In regimes where copyright in the collective work lasts for a defined duration after the death of the last surviving author, or after the death of the publisher if they have written one of the articles, it may be difficult or impossible to determine when the collective work moves into the public domain. However, it should be acceptable to make a conservative guess as to how long the last author might have survived and use this to calculate an assumed public domain date for the collective work.
  • Some regimes do not explicitly recognise collective works, but allow for transfer of rights from the authors to the publisher of a work such as a periodical or encyclopedia through contractual agreement. This may include partial transfer of rights, for example preventing the author from publishing their work elsewhere for a defined period of time. In absence of details of the contracts, the work may be seen as a collaborative work with the publisher as one of the authors. Copyright would typically last for a defined period after death of the last surviving author.


Wikimedia does not have a formal policy for treatment of collective works, but some common sense guidelines should be considered for images of pages from collective works:

  • Purpose: The purpose of uploading a page image from a collective work could be to show the general appearance of the work, to show headlines related to an important event or to show an image in its original context. Do not upload a page in an attempt to bypass copyright restrictions on a text or image contribution.
  • Overall status: Only upload a page image to Commons if the collective work is in the public domain in the country where it was first published and in the USA. Where the duration of copyright depends on date of death of last surviving author, and this is not known, you may assume the overall collective work entered the public domain after 120 years.
  • Uncertain death date: If the page contains text or images where the date of the author's death is not known, and the copyright regime lets an author retain the copyright in their contributions, assume these contributions are non-free unless 120 years have elapsed since publication and a reasonably diligent search has failed to find any authors who lived later than 1953. A search is not required if more than 150 years have elapsed since publication (e.g. published in 1872 or earlier).[a]
  • Non-free content:
    Part of a page image reduced so the text is illegible, with an image removed
    • Images: If the page contains non-free images replace them by grey rectangles, which may hold the text "image removed", regardless of the copyright status of the collective work. Where the images are large, consider whether the resulting page image is worth uploading.
    • Text: If the page contains non-free text, reduce the page image in size sufficiently to make the text illegible.[b] Headlines and titles may still be legible, since they are part of the public domain collective work rather than the non-free article.
  • License notice
    • If you are confident that all the content is free, e.g. because all the authors are known to have died more than 70 years ago, add the {{PD-collective-work}} tag to the file description page.
    • If it is reasonable to assume any of the content in a collective work page image may be non-free, add the {{Newspaper}} or {{Collective work}} tag to the file description page. Any newspaper page published after around 1878 may contain non-free content, although the older it is the less likely that is. For example, if one of the authors was born in 1863, published in France in 1883, claimed authorship and died in 1955 at the age of 92, the page would be non-free until 2026. However, there is community consensus that anything older than 120 years may safely be considered public domain.

Reasonably diligent search[edit]

Cartoon from Le Charivari by Amédée de Noé (1818–1879). The author has signed his work with his pseudonym, "CHAM" (lower right).

For collective works that were first published after 1872 in countries where copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the author, the uploader should undertake a "reasonably diligent search" to ensure that none of the authors were alive later than 1953. Most countries are vague about what is meant by "reasonably diligent search", but the Canadian Copyright Board suggests that depending on the nature of the work the potential user may contact different collective management societies and publishing houses, universities, museums, provincial departments of Education, registration systems of copyright offices, to investigate inheritance records, to consult indexes of national libraries, and simply search the internet.[1] The older the work, the less exhaustive the search is expected to be, but the uploader should at least:

  • Find any author names or pseudonyms on the page and try to track down the dates of death.
  • Try to locate the publisher of the collective work, or its successor, and if found ask for copyright information on the works on the page.

Libraries, educational establishments, museums, archives and other institutions in Europe are engaged in large-scale digitisation of their collections to create European Digital Libraries. For example, in France the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), the national library, considers journals published more than 70 years ago to be collective works in the public domain. The BnF has uploaded many sets of page images of these works to their Gallica website, marking each set as "public domain". However, text or pictures in the page images may still be protected by copyright. If the collective work image comes from one of these digital libraries the uploader should contact the responsible organization to ask whether the individual works are public domain.

Variations in definitions and durations[edit]

La Patrie (1899-02-19). Some of the articles have bylines, and some of the pictures are signed. The authors of other contributions are not identified here but may have claimed authorship elsewhere.


Definitions vary considerably from one country to another.

  • A sample definition from the Greek code: "The term 'collective work' shall designate any work created through the independent contribution of several authors acting under the intellectual direction and coordination of one natural person. That natural person shall be the initial right holder of the economic right and the moral right in the collective work. Each author of a contribution shall be the initial right holder of the economic right and the moral right in his own contribution, provided that that contribution is capable of separate exploitation."[2]
  • Under French law, "The author of a work of the mind shall enjoy in that work, by the mere fact of its creation, an exclusive incorporeal property right which shall be enforceable against all persons." However, the individual authors are not given rights in the collective work as a whole: “Collective work” shall mean a work created at the initiative of a natural or legal person who edits it, publishes it and discloses it under his direction and name and in which the personal contributions of the various authors who participated in its production are merged in the overall work for which they were conceived, without it being possible to attribute to each author a separate right in the work as created.[3]
  • New Zealand does not distinguish between collaborative and collective works, and does not spell out the requirement that the collective work be created under the direction of a natural or legal person: collective work means— (a) a work of joint authorship; or (b) a work in which there are distinct contributions by different authors or in which works, or parts of works, of different authors are incorporated.[4]
  • In Norway, any person who by combining several literary, scientific or artistic works, or parts thereof, creates a collective literary, scientific or artistic work shall have the copyright in the collective work, but this right shall in no way restrict the copyright in the individual works of which the collective work consists. Unless otherwise agreed, the individual contributors shall be free to make their contributions public in another manner. The term "literary, scientific or artistic work" includes writings of all kinds, photographic works, paintings, drawings, graphic and similar pictorial works, and other types of work.[5]
  • In the United States the Copyright Act of 1976, section 101, defines a collective work as "a work, such as a periodical issue, anthology, or encyclopedia, in which a number of contributions, constituting separate and independent works in themselves, are assembled into a collective whole". It is protected as long as the "author" can show that the selection and organization of the contributions is original, and that these contributions can themselves be protected, as opposed to being mere facts.[6] If there is no contract transferring ownership and the contributions are not work for hire, the owner has the right to reproduce, distribute and revise the collective work, but does not have the rights to the individual contributions.[6]
  • In Belgian law there is no mention of collective works, although there is a brief discussion of works made by employees or under contract, where the author may or may not retain rights.


Time cover from 1963. Copyright was not renewed so the magazine and cover illustration are both in the public domain. The artist, Bernard Safran, died in 1995. If the "death+70" rule had applied, the illustration would have been protected until 2066.

When the copyright in a collective work expires, perhaps 70 years after publication, it goes into the public domain and in many jurisdictions may be freely copied as a whole. However, the contributions may remain individually protected by copyright, and therefore may not be extracted from the context of the collective work and published elsewhere. Again, laws vary considerably from one country to another.

  • In China, when a legal entity or organization directs creation of a work and bears responsibility for the work, all rights vest in the organizational author.[7] The individual contributions go into the public domain at the same time as the collective work.
  • In the United States the Copyright Act of 1909 covered composite and cyclopaedic works, directories, gazetteers, and other compilations; periodicals, including newspapers; and other works.[8] An author could not transfer the rights for their work to be published as part of a collective work without transferring all rights in their work. This doctrine of indivisibility was eliminated in the Copyright Act of 1976, which stated that rights to a work may be divided to any number of recipients, and each may be limited to a specified time or place.[9] In 1998 the Copyright Term Extension Act extended the duration of copyright protection for most post-1977 works to the duration of the author's life plus 70 years.
  • In France the collective work as a whole goes into the public domain 70 years after publication, but each individual contribution is protected until 70 years after the author's death.[10][3]
  • In Spain, a collective work normally goes into the public domain 70 years after publication, but if the natural person who created the work is identified in that work as an author it remains protected until 70 years after that person's death.[11]
  • In Norway a collective or joint work is protected for 70 years following the year of death of the longest surviving author.[12] This could be 120 years or more after publication.

Other types of multi-author work[edit]

Collage of cc-by-sa-2.5 or public domain images

Two other types of multi-author work are sometimes confused with collective works, but usually are subject to very different copyright laws:

  • Collaborative work: Several authors work together to create the work, and their individual contributions cannot be distinguished. Examples would be an academic paper with several co-authors; or a song by a partnership such as Lennon–McCartney.
  • Derivative work. An author adapts the work of an original author(s) to create a new work. The original author does not participate. Examples would be a translation of a novel; a cover version of a song; or a collage of pictures by several artists.

Unlike collective works, with both collaborative and derivative works there is no way to remove the contribution of one of the authors without damaging or destroying the work. The authors typically all have copyright and must agree on how to publish and how to divide any royalties. Copyright usually lasts for a defined length of time (e.g. 70 years) after the death of the last surviving author. Different types of work may of course be combined. Thus a magazine (collective work) may publish a translation (derivative work) of a co-authored essay (collaborative work).

See also[edit]


  1. We assume that all the authors must have died more than 70 years ago if the collective work was published more than 150 years ago. That is, none of the authors would have lived more than 80 years after their contribution was published. There will be examples of centenarians who contributed to collective works when very young, but these can be handled on a case by case basis.
  2. The judgement in See v. Durang (1983) established the legal doctrine that "Copying deleted or so disguised as to be unrecognizable is not copying." If the text is illegible it does not violate copyright.


  1. Ioannis, Iglezakis, (2010-10-31) E-Publishing and Digital Libraries: Legal and Organizational Issues: Legal and Organizational Issues[1], IGI Global, ISBN 978-1-60960-033-4
  2. “Art. 7.”, in Greece: Law No. 2121/1993 on Copyright, Related Rights and Cultural Matters (as amended by Law No. 2435 of August 2, 1996)[2], 1996
  3. a b “Literary and Artistic Property”, in Intellectual Property Code[3], legifrance, 2003
  4. Copyright Act 1994[4], New Zealand, 1994
  5. Norwegian Copyright Act[5], 10-10
  6. a b Bruguiere, Jean-Michel (12 May 2017), “The collective work in the American copyright and the question of its revision by the right holder”, in L'ACTUALITÉ DDG[6]
  7. Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP (2004) Analysis of International Work-for-Hire Laws[7]
  8. An act to amend and consolidate the acts respecting copyright[8], Congress, 1909
  9. Fountain, Jennifer L. ((Please provide a date))“Indivisibility and Divisibility of Copyright: Copyright Act of 1909 and 1976”, in Findlaw[9]
  10. Code de la propriété intellectuelle, Article L123-3[10], Legifrance, 1995-07-01
  11. “art. 28”, in Real Decreto Legislativo 1/1996, de 12 de abril, por el que se aprueba el texto refundido de la Ley de Propiedad Intelectual, regularizando, aclarando y armonizando las disposiciones legales vigentes sobre la materia[11] (in Spanish), 2005
  12. Hannemyr, Gisle (11 June 2009) Copyright, etc. terms in Norway[12], page 2