We can't say for sure who owns the rights to The Virginian's publicity photos, but if they're like many other publicity photos from that time (The Virginian ran from 1962-1971), there's a good possibility that they're in the public domain.
The Wind and the Wizard. Works published before March 1, 1989, were required to include copyright notice so if the Virginian's publicity stills were distributed without a notice (the word "copyright" or "©" and the name of the owner), you're free to use them. It wasn't uncommon for stills to lack notice.
"An issue of recurring application is publicity photos for motion pictures from the 1920's through 1970's. The films themselves from that era were routinely protected as validly noticed and registered works; but much less care was typically exercised during production and in the publicity office. (1-4 Nimmer on Copyright § 4.13[A].)In some situations, the lack of notice might have been deliberate. A notice might have discouraged reproductions and the whole point of these 8 x 10 glossies was to get publicity. In one case that arose over the use of posters and promo photos from the films The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the materials entered the public domain when they were distributed without a copyright notice.
Before 1964? If any of the stills were distributed before 1964 it's likely they entered the public domain. Works published before 1964 had to be renewed and only a small percentage (estimated to be less than11%) met that requirement.
If it is still under copyright ... there are a few things to consider:
- Who owns the copyright? It's probably either NBC or the production company that created the show (or an assignee of either of the two). It's possible but unlikely that the rights for promo photos were transferred to a third party stock photo house such as Getty. That's easy enough to check using Google's Reverse Image Search
- Will the copyright owner learn of your use, and if so, will they care? If a reverse image search confirms several unauthorized uses, that may indicate that either (1) the copyright owner is not trolling the web for old promo photos, or (2) the copyright owner doesn't care about those reproductions. If the owner of the photos also owns rights to the TV series, it wouldn't be good publicity to go after a former star of the show while the show is still in syndication.
- Does your posting of the picture constitute fair use? Based on the four fair use factors, we think you have a strong fair use argument. However, as we always warn, fair use is a defense made when the case is being litigated -- already an expensive proposition.