Popular 1910 Tarot Deck Copyright Status

We have received a number of emails over the years from many of our members regarding the copyright status of our “Popular 1910 Deck”.  To this day we still maintain that Popular 1910 Deck images are in fact in the public domain.  In October of 2009 we were contacted by US Games Systems Inc. about this issue.  We had a very constructive back and forth email conversation which lays out their legal claims and ours.   Feel free to read the exchange below and come to your own conclusions:

US Games Systems, Inc.:

You are using the Rider-Waite illustrations without permission from US Games Systems who legally hold the copyright and trademark.  We ask you to cease and desist telling customers that the images are in the public domain.  Mystic Games does not have authorization to use the images on their site.  The images are only to be used with proper authorization so please contact me.  Pamela Colman Smith, the artist, died in 1951 and the deck does not go into public domain until 2021, 70 years after the artist’s death.

Mystic Games:

Hello [Ms Representative]

The illustrations of the “Popular 1910 deck” as we call it on our website are the actual images from the work from Pamela Coleman Smith that was published in 1909-1910.   The  +70 year copyright term does not apply to any works created prior to 1922 here in the United States.  Years ago we consulted legal counsel on this issue and found that the old copyrights would have expired in 1985 at the very latest.  This means the images we use are in fact in the public domain, any other statements notwithstanding.  We understand that the “Rider-Waite” name and any “new matter” published by US Games is protected, which is why we are not using it or the Rider-Waite deck images on our site.

[Ms Representative], we actually did get permission from you many years ago to use the “Rider-Waite” deck images on our site for as long as our website is in existence, and although we believe the images are beautiful and inspiring, we did not use the Rider-Waite deck because we felt that the “Popular 1910 deck” is more authentic.

Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns,

US Games Systems, Inc.:

Dear Mystic Games,

The 1909 Original Rider-Waite images were illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith who died in 1951.  The copyright would still expire seventy years after Pamela’s death which would be 2021.  Your legal consult was incorrect in the information they provided.

We don’t mind your use of this deck with the proper attribution to US Games Systems or our partner in Rider-Waite, Random House UK who owns the copyright of the 1909 deck, but we ask you to remove the wording that it is in the public domain, which is incorrect until 2021.

Additionally, if you are using the deck for interactive tarot readings, please be aware that tarot.com, as our affiliate, has the exclusive right for this kind of usage. 

We look forward to your comments.

Mystic Games:

Hello [Ms Representative],

    I believe you are referring to the Sunny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 which added the +70 year provision you mentioned (http://www.copyright.gov/docs/nla.html). This act added a +20 year
extension to the previous term of the life of the author which had been +50 years, however, this provision ONLY applied to works that were still under copyright protection.  This means that any previously copyrighted publication that had already passed into the public domain before this new law was enacted is “grandfathered in” as a public domain work.  Again, just to be clear, works that passed into the public domain were not subsequently revoked from the public domain and placed back into copyright protection as part of this law. Works published in the US in 1922 or earlier went into the public domain 75 years after their publication (prior to the passage of the 1998 act) and are excluded from this provision.   The 1909-1910 deck has been in the public domain in the United States since 1985 (at the very latest) and is therefore excluded from this provision.

   [Ms Representative], I just want to reiterate that we understand that the “Rider-Waite” name and any “new matter” published by US Games is protected under your 1971 copyright, which is one of the reasons why we are not using it or the Rider-Waite deck images on our site.

We welcome any questions or comments you may have

There was no further communication after this last email was sent.

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1 comment to Popular 1910 Tarot Deck Copyright Status

  • Angela

    Wow! I never knew all of this was going on behind the scenes about this beautiful old deck. It is the only one that I am familiar enough with to feel good about interpreting, since the “newer” decks seem to have, often very subtle, differences in meaning from this one.
    I had no idea that there was any question about this deck being in the public domain. I have been using it since the 1970s and have used and purchased decks in several different locations from different sources.
    Anyway, I love this site and visit daily.

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