RE: Art commissioned by the WPA

From: Barry G. Szczesny <bgs[_at_]>
Date: Wed, 8 May 2002 16:18:50 -0500

In September of 2000, The General Services Administration (GSA) issued/reissued several policy documents restating the Federal Government's claim of title to artworks produced under the WPA (The Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 transferred all functions of the Federal Works Agency, including WPA artwork, to GSA). The GSA issued/reissued these documents to reassert its interests in these works when they started showing up for sale on e-bay and elsewhere.

The goal for WPA artworks as stated by the Federal Government is that they were meant to be available to the public. Many WPA artworks were "allocated" and loaned to government agencies and nonprofit institutions, such as museums. Interestingly, for artworks "allocated" by the government, these institutions hold restricted title and the government holds what amounts to a reversionary interest if such institutions seek to dispose of the artworks.

Here's what the 2000 letter states about private ownership of WPA works:

"Private Ownership
Many WPA works of art were purchased in good faith or acquired through other justifiable
means; some were even saved from disposal or destruction by private citizens. However, these
works of art were produced with taxpayer's funds and represent an important period in the
history and culture of our country. They should be placed in public institutions where they will
be available to the American people. To that end, we ask that you notify us at the following
address if you have any of these works of art.

Fine Arts Program (PNH)
Public Buildings Service
General Services Administration
1800 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20405"

The documents make no mention of copyright, but I thought they would be of interest to the list (see the links below). As Tyler points out, the "employee"/"contractor" distinction is key. From what I understand, most of the WPA works depending on the particular program were created by "employees," and would be in the public domain. However, some works, especially extensive murals, were commissioned. Typically, the WPA required all rights in commissioned works to be transferred to the US Government, but this may not have happened in all cases. Again, from what I understand, the GSA assumes a WPA work was created by an employee unless there is some evidence to the contrary. I also understand the GSA is open to inquiries about particular works -- the more information you have about an artwork, the better.

As with so many copyright inquiries, it's a case-by-case thing.

The GSA Fine Arts program: gramId=10233&contentOID=115179&contentType=1004&cid=1

GSA - Legal Ownership Letter of WPA Art Work Letter outlining the identification, ownership, responsibility, and goals for federally owned artwork from the Federal New Deal art projects (1933-1943). tentType=1006

GSA - Legal Title of Art Work Produced Under the Works Progress Administration - The Federal property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 transferred all functions of the Federal Works Agency, including the administration and care of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) works of art, to the US General Services Administration. tentType=1006

Barry G. Szczesny
Eckhart, McSwain, Silliman & Sears
21 S. Clark Street, Suite 3160
Chicago, Illinois 60603
312/236-0646 - Office Phone
312/236-0105 - Fax

-----Original Message-----
From: Tyler Ochoa [mailto:tochoa[_at_]] Sent: Monday, May 06, 2002 4:37 PM
To: Multiple recipients of list
Subject: Re: Art commissioned by the WPA

I don't have any definitive answers; it would make an interesting research project. The Government works exception was codified in 1976; I don't know how clearly it was established before then, and I don't know how clear it was that WPA beneficiaries were actually "employees" as opposed to contractors. But I do recall reading that the photographs taken by Ansel Adams for the Government (WPA?) in the 1930s are in the public domain. If his situation was typical, it might provide an answer to the question.

Tyler T. Ochoa
Associate Professor and Co-Director
Center for Intellectual Property Law
Whittier Law School

Visiting Associate Professor
University of California
Hastings College of the Law

>>> rabaron[_at_] 05/05/02 23:27 PM >>>
Dear cni-copyright:

On another list we are discussing the intellectual property status of works
commissioned by the Works Progress Administration. The artists (mostly) worked as employees of the government. Would it then follow that their paintings -- the ones that appeared on post offices and other public buildings, are government works and therefore in the public domain?

What might be the status of their preparatory drawings and sketches. These
didn't pass into government hands and may have been given away or sold over
the years by the artist or his heirs. If these too are government works,

might they also be in the public domain -- no matter who owns them now?

A third hypothetical question concerns the possibility of a WPA artist insisting on a contract that would award him the copyright of his own works. Could the government enter into a contract that would, in effect,

keep works from entering the public domain if all other facts of employment
led to these being works for hire?

All these works were executed in the 1930s. One contributor to our thread
on this topic thought that the heirs might have some legitimate claim for
the copyright. How could this be possible, unless the artist himself owned
the copyright at that time?

Robert A. Baron
mailto:robert[_at_] Received on Wed May 08 2002 - 21:21:40 GMT

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