Who owns the rights to the archival materials I use?

As you work with archival materials, remember that the owner of the materials may have legal rights to restrict your use or publication of them. Finding copyrighted materials in an archive doesn’t mean you can’t read those materials and cite them in your work. Copyright law allows archives and libraries to provide copies for use in private study, scholarship or research. However, you may need to get the permission of the copyright owner before publishing your digital photos of that material. Putting material on a publicly accessible website constitutes publication.

Many archives have rights statements that you have to read, acknowledge, and sign before you see any materials. Rights statements can also commonly be found in finding aids and in online catalogs. Make sure you include and record rights information as part of the metadata for items in Tropy. The default templates in Tropy include rights as a mandatory field, so that an alert appears until you complete that material. We recommend that you include a URL to the relevant information in your rights metadata, if one is available (see, for instance, this page from the Massachusetts Historical Society).

There is considerable variation in the form and contents of the rights information provided by archives and libraries, and it is not always clear who owns the rights to material. Archives do not automatically own the copyright of material in their holdings. Donors or sellers can retain the rights for material, or they may not own the copyright of all the items they transfer to an archive. For example, a donor may not own the copyright to letters written to them, or they may have transferred the rights to someone else, such as a publisher (see SAA, FAQs).

Material in archives may also not be under copyright. Instead, it may be in the public domain, which means the material can be used freely without permission or attribution. Copyright cannot be claimed over digital images of public domain material; you need to alter the work to be able to claim copyright. However, your use of digitized public domain material can be restricted by terms of use, such as those you agree to in order to use subscription-based databases such as ProQuest products or Ancestry.com.

Please note: These lists apply only to U.S. copyright status. If you live or work in another country or are using material published in another country, you should check that country's copyright policies.

  • U.S. federal government documents (produced by or for government agencies); note that only some state government documents are in the public domain

  • Laws and legal codes

  • Works whose owners waive their copyright by using the Creative Commons 0 dedication

Material likely in the public domain

  • Works published before 1923

    • Note: In copyright law, publication is defined as “distribution to the public,” which can include posters, brochures and pamphlets, as well as books

  • In copyright law, unpublished material can include correspondence and photographs

  • Works published between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice

  • Works published between 1923 and 1963 if the owner did not renew the copyright

  • Unpublished works older than the year of the author’s death + 70 years (in 2020, authors who died before 1950)

  • Unpublished works older than 120 years from the date of creation, if the author’s death is not known, or if the author is anonymous or created the work for hire (in 2020, works created before 1900)

For more information, see ALA’s Copyright Slider.

Copyright info courtesy of the Public Library Partnerships Project

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