Rider Waite Smith Tarot deck [Correction]

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US Games has informed The Wild Hunt that there is a conflation in the article with various versions of the deck and rights may preclude the deck from entering the public domain.  US Games states that it “owns exclusive rights to the RIDER-WAITE mark, and that right may be preserved in perpetuity.”

US  Games notes that ” Even when the copyright derived from Colman Smith expires, which was erroneously reported as January 1, 2021 instead of December 31, 2021, U.S. Games’ rights in the images as interpreted on its cards will not, and exact reproductions, including card backs and interpretations of colorization, will still lie exclusively in US Games.

Finally, the date on which any copyright expires is dependent upon the jurisdiction, and while it may expire at the end of 2021 in some places, that is not true globally. US Games is, and remains, the only publisher authorized by Waite’s estate.”

TWH – It was originally expected to enter the public domain in 2013, 70 years after the death of Arthur Edward Waite, but U.S. Games reasserted their rights to sole ownership beyond copyright expiration for Arthur Edward White, choosing at that time to base the copyright expiration on the death of the contributor who died the most recently.  That contributor was the deck’s illustrator, Pamela Colman Smith.

1909 original (left) and 1971 revisions (right) of the Rider-Waite tarot.

1909 original (left) and 1971 revisions (right) of the Rider-Waite tarot.


In a 2012 article, The Wild Hunt discussed the possible copyright expiration in 2013, 70 years after the death of Waite, and what this could mean for the wildly popular deck of cards. The article described that copyright law was not cut-and-dry and that it was unlikely that the deck would actually enter the public domain until 2021

Despite the fact that Waite did purchase the rights of the illustrations from Smith, and therefore Smith’s claim (and therefore U.S. Games’) to copyright was muddy, challenging this assertion would likely have been expensive for any company hoping to produce a rival deck. It seemed doubtful any group would be willing to enter into a potentially long and costly lawsuit.

Public domain laws vary across countries but are usually based on the country of origin of the artistic work. Because the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot originated in the U.K., it is subject to that country’s copyright law which dictates that the copyright exists until 70 years have passed since the artist’s death.

Questions often arise as to whether this applies to every member of a collaborative team, the lead member, and how contributors are considered. Litigation is often contentious and messy. Further complicating the issue is that parts of a creative product may enter the public domain before other parts, i.e., an image of an item in the public domain but taken from a copyright-protected film may still itself be copyrighted.

But now it has been 70 years since Pamela Colman Smith, nicknamed “Pixie,” passed away in 1951. Even fans of the Rider-Waite Tarot are often unfamiliar with Smith’s name—although her artwork graces each of the 78 cards, her name is rarely included when the deck is discussed. She herself was cognizant of receiving minimal credit for her now-iconic illustrations, as reflected in her personal writings wherein she declared that it was “a big job for very little cash!”

Pamela Colman Smith from The Lamp 1903 – Public Domain

The RWS deck was originally published in 1909, and during this time period, Pamela Colman Smith moved in well-known literary and performing circles. While she was acquainted with the likes of John Yeats, father of the poet William Butler Yeats, from her own writings and from those who wrote about her it is evident that most of her acquaintances and important relationships were with women.

Nevertheless, despite a large body of work as an illustrator, costume designer, performing storyteller, and many other artistic endeavors, Smith is best known for her expressive and enduring illustrations of the minor and major arcana.

Now the iconic art of the RWS tarot deck will enter the public domain with greater legal clarity, and as such will be available for use by anyone. The only exceptions to this are any designs added later to the box or minor redesigns of the backs of the cards.

Copyright protection is not solely a means of licensing a product for revenue, or preventing others from reproducing it—otherwise known as an economic right. Protections in the U.K. also cover moral right.

A copyright owner’s moral right to a piece of art protects the owner’s right to be known and identified as the creator. U.S. Games would no longer be able to assert their sole ownership of the deck if another entity decided to manufacture it. Moral rights protect a creator’s right to legally object to false attribution or to derogatory use of the artwork, as these acts are considered to impinge on the copyright owner’s right to protect their honor or reputation.

U.S. Games has been producing the RWS Tarot deck at a consistent rate for years and the deck has never gone out of print since the company acquired the rights. The deck has undergone only very minor changes, such as enhancements of the colors used. The artwork has remained the same.

Judgment (XX), Rider Waite deck. Public Domain.

It is unclear if other companies intend to mass-produce this best-known tarot deck now that it is in the public domain. Another manufacturer producing the RWS Tarot deck might seek a portion of the market share or could drive up the value of collectible cards and decks.

The deck has had long term success because the images are so easily interpreted even without the small guidebook written by Waite. U.S. Games has been selling the deck at around $20 for years, although older and rare, collectible decks and individual cards have sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars among enthusiasts.