Considering Copyright

Copyright and fair use are important topics for those of us working in the digital realm.

Certainly, old photographs, letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and other original works can provide essential historical detail for online exhibits, institutional websites, and educational resources. But how do we know when it is okay to post those items online and when doing so would violate copyright law?

I had an opportunity to attend a free workshop last month geared toward helping archivists and librarians better understand intellectual property issues. Copyright experts Peter Hirtle from Cornell University and Madelyn Wessel from the University of Virginia provided an overview of current law and shared many helpful resources for those of us trying to negotiate our way through it.

To summarize what I learned: intellectual property law is complicated, and the internet makes it all the more complicated. But we may be hurting ourselves in the long run by being overly cautious.

Of course, I am not a lawyer and this blog post does not constitute legal advice. You should consult your own legal counsel to determine your or your institution’s best course of action when it comes to digitization and intellectual property.

This photo of women welders is under no copyright restrictions, because it was taken for a U.S. federal government agency. You can learn more about the image on its National Archives Flickr page (see link at end of post).

But if you’re new to this topic, you can find a solid introduction to copyright law with Hirtle’s recent book, Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for Digitization for U.S. Libraries, Archives and Museums. (You can even download a copy for free.) Hirtle also provides a helpful chart listing what works are now in the public domain.

You can find many other helpful online resources for navigating intellectual property issues with a quick Google search. I especially like Cornell’s Copyright Resource Center, including its list of resources, and the University of Texas Libraries’ Copyright Crash Course. The U.S. Copyright Office also offers a variety of tools and tips, including a cartoon featuring Detective Cop E. Right aimed at teachers and students.

None of these resources will substitute for specific legal advice, but hopefully they will help you gain confidence in determining your own project’s risks.

National Archives Flickr page