The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck has gone through numerous editions, and early versions of this deck command high prices at auction.
The original artist, Pamela Coleman Smith, designed the cards in conjunction with A.E. Waite. Pamela Coleman Smith drew and colored the deck. The cards were published by William Rider and Son of London in conjunction with the book, 'The Key to the Tarot' in 1909-1910.
The cards have grown in popularity over the years, and the most popular deck, published by US Games Systems, Inc. (USGS) in 1970, has sold millions of copies. US Games asserts that the RWS cards are their intellectual property, and uses claims of copyright and trademark to defend this position. However, one portion of this claim hinges on whether the US Games deck displays any substantial creative additions to the original Smith deck.
For more information on the publication history of the RWS Tarot and the intellectual property issues surrounding it, please refer to my Tarot copyright FAQ.
The subject of this short essay is to compare a few cards from the earliest known Tarot deck (Pamela-A 1909) with the best selling commercial deck (US Games 1970). The question at hand is how different US Games' deck is from the original.
In my opinion, after viewing the two decks at high resolution, there appears to be few differences between the two in terms of color, and almost no difference whatsoever in line art. This would certainly not justify a claim of creative enhancements to the deck. Thus the US Games copyright ownership claim would appear to hinge on a document trail which has yet to be elucidated.
To allow the reader to make up their own mind, I've presented high resolution images of sample cards from the two decks side by side. These images are fairly large, so the successive pages will take a few minutes to completely download if you are viewing them on a dialup line.
The Pamela-A images were graciously provided by Holly Voley, scanned from a rare deck in her personal collection. I encourage you to visit her website at http://home.comcast.net/~vilex/, which has a comprehensive range of Tarot card images and facts. The US Games images were scanned from an off-the-shelf copy of the 1970 deck, and are presented under the fair-use provisions of US Copyright.