Copyright: The LEAST You Need to Know

July 16, 2018

By Nancy Kuhl

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Copyright is complex and tricky; scholars who wish to quote or publish copyright-protected works must necessarily investigate and evaluate the specific details in each case. Some basics are outlined below; visit the Beinecke Library’s Permissions & Copyright Page for more detailed information.

Who Owns Rights

There may be exceptions in each case, but the following may provide starting places for copyright research: 

research libraries rarely control copyright or intellectual property rights in the materials in their collections;

copyright generally belongs to an author or creator (or after their death to their heirs or estate);

copyright in a letter belongs to the writer of the letter, not to its recipient (who may own the physical property but not the intellectual property);

copyright in a photograph belongs to the photographer, not to the subject (who may have some privacy rights), nor to the owner of the photograph; if a photographer is “working for hire” copyright in their images may belong to the person or organization which hired them;

 copyright in published texts and images may belong to the author or to the publisher.

Unidentified Authors and Anonymous Works

Any information that the Beinecke Library has about the identity of the creator of a text or an image will appear in the library’s description of the work–whether in Orbis, the digital library, or the collection finding aid. Works for which the author or rights holder is not known may be considered “orphan works.” The publication and other use of such works are the subject of debate and new legislation. Read more: Orphan Works in the US .

Useful Resources

Detailed information about copyright duration can be found on the Library of Congress website (L of C: How Long Copyrights Last);

the Copyright Office website has a useful description of Fair Use (Copyright: Information on Fair Use);

many fair use tools exist on the web (Fair Use Evaluator)–remember to save any documentation of your fair use determination;

you can find information about Yale Univeristy’s Open Access to Digital Representations of Works in the Public Domain from Museum, Library, and Archive Collections policy: Frequently Asked Questions;

and the WATCH File is perhaps the largest database of US and UK copyright holders (WATCH File: Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders).