Understanding Copyright Restrictions

Do not let uncertainty about copyrights derail your museum’s potential project. There are now many resources online to help you answer questions about public domain, fair use, foreign copyright laws, and calculated risks.

  • The public domain may be bigger than you thought. Everything published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain. Works published between 1923 and 1964 without copyright renewals are also public domain. Works created by federal government offices or by federal employees as part of their job duties are also public domain. For more details and copyright categories, click here.
  • The American Library Association’s office for Information Technology Policy has recently made two helpful resources available online. The digital slider is a quick tool to gauge whether a piece is in the public domain. The ALA has also developed an interactive site, the “copyright genie,” where you can type in information about the work in question, your institution, and the purposes of the potential reproduction. It’s “fair use evaluator” allows you to print out a time-stamped, color-coded fair use evaluation document, which may be especially helpful to keep in your project files as an example of due diligence.
  • Works published in other countries have different copyright rules. Here’s an online source with information about copyright laws around the world (though often not in English).
  • Calculated risk: After reviewing these resources you may be able to determine that your reproduction project is risk-free. If questions remain, then exercise due diligence in attempting to contact the publisher or other potential copyright holder for permission, and finally, take a calculated risk in using the work.

The Library of Congress offers some reassurance about worst case scenarios for reproduction in its online guide to risk assessment: “The Library is aware of a few cases where a user was told by someone claiming to hold the rights to images in the Library’s collections to ‘cease and desist’ publication of the images. When the users requested proof of rights ownership, however, the matter was dropped. The Library is unaware of any lawsuits involving the use of its historical images.” Finally, a take-down policy can be a useful back-up in situations where you must take a calculated risk. If someone, who can prove copyright ownership, complains about your use of an image or other work, be willing to remove it from an exhibition, website, etc.

Of course, regardless of copyright status, it is always a good practice to cite the source of any material you reproduce, whether image or documentary. This credits the holding repository, while guiding potential researchers.

Has your organization ever had to take calculated risks with projects involving reproduction? Has it ever run into problems? Or shied away from projects because of copyright uncertainties?

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on October 19, 2012, in collections access, Exhibitions, museums, public programs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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