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The general rule of thumb is that anything that was published before 1923 is in the public domain. Anything published after that date is still under a copyright. If the company went out of business, the copyright still exists, it just would have been transferred to either an individual or another company during the windup or bankruptcy.
You would need to look into who actually owned the copyright. If the maps have a copyright line on them the copyright owner is generally the company/person listed next to the copyright symbol.
The maps generally do not have a copyright symbol. They do clearly state the company that either made them or sold them.
So if a map was made after 1923, do I have to track down the entity that I believe holds copyright and ask for permission to reproduce?
So let's imagine that I can get someone on the phone. Do I need to get them to sign a contract? I would assume so.
Yes, you would need them to give you a license to reproduce the maps.
This would be a contract for a period of time (or in perpetuity) and would specify the territory (worldwide), media (either solely for posters or any and all media now known or hereafter devised) and fee, if any.
And if I cannot find anyone who believes that they hold the copyright?
I guess I would be taking a risk if I published something. Because someone could make a claim after the fact, even if I could document that I searched for the copyright holder, right?
You can do one of two things. If you can track down the company that acquired the company that went out of business (or subsequently acquired that company) then they most likely also acquired the copyright. However, they may not even know that they own these copyrights. Therefore, one option is for them to give you want is called a 'quitclaim' license. This basically states that they do not know if they own the copyright but if they do, they grant you a license to reproduce them.
If you cannot get that, you would be taking a risk.
You are correct that they can sue you regardless of whether you were diligent in your search for the correct owner.
ok, thank you for your help.