Search millions of photographs from the LIFE photo archive, stretching from the 1750s to today. Most were never published and are now available for the first time through the joint work of LIFE and Google.
It should be noted that while they say they will continue to add more photographs, the earliest decade currently in the archive is 1860s. The first successful photograph supposedly was produced in 1827. Therefore, I think the above contains an obvious typo.
The question might arise -- are any of these photographs in the public domain? Let's take a look at this chart by the Cornell University Copyright Information Center. My assumption is that all the photographs fall under the category of Works for Hire - the company of hire being LIFE. According to the description, most of them were unpublished. So prior to their publication this week on Google, they had a copyright of 120 years from creation. Therefore, on January 1, 2008 any of the photographs dated prior to 1888 were in the public domain. I am fairly certain once a work enters the public domain, that isn't retracted.
However, all the post 1888 photographs are now published. And published works for hire have a copyright of 95 years after publication.
So it is quite understandable why LIFE went along with Google's idea of publishing all these unpublished works. If I am correct, it extends their copyright significantly. But the currently 100-200 pre-1888 photographs are in the public domain.