Copyright and Digitization

Copyright Issues for Libraries When Digitizing Materials for the Web

When digitizing documents or other objects to be made available on the World Wide Web, a library first needs to determine whether the item is protected by copyright or whether it is in the public domain. If the material is protected by copyright, the library will need to obtain permission from the copyright owner before making the digitized copy available through the World Wide Web. If the item is in the public domain, the library does not need permission to digitize it and make it available.

To determine whether an item is protected by U.S. copyright law*, a library must find the answers to five questions:

  1. Is the item published or unpublished?
  2. What year was it published, or if unpublished, what year was it created?
  3. If published before 1989, does it have a notice of copyright (© or the word Copyright or Copr.)?
  4. If published between 1923 and 1963, was the copyright renewed before 1964 when renewal became automatic?
  5. Is the author dead, and if so, in what year did he or she die?

Based on the answers to the above questions, the item will fall under one of the following categories.

PUBLISHED

Published; 1922 or earlier; author dead or alive
In the public domain. No permission necessary.

Published without © notice before 1989
Probably in public domain. Works published without © before 1978 are definitely in the public domain. No permission necessary.

Published with a © notice between 1923-1963 and renewed, or published between 1964 and 1977
Will be protected by copyright until 95 years after date of publication. Get permission from current copyright owner.

Published with a © notice between 1923-1963 and NOT renewed
In the public domain. No permission necessary.

Published; 1978 - present; author dead or alive
Will be protected by copyright until 70 years after the death of the author, or for a corporate author, the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. [In the case of a previously unpublished work created between 1923 and 1977 that was subsequently published prior to December 31, 2002, the work will be protected by copyright until December 31, 2047 or until 70 years after the death of the author, whichever is longer.] Get permission from current copyright owner.

UNPUBLISHED

Unpublished; created in 1977 or earlier; author died more than 70 years ago
In the public domain. No permission necessary.

Unpublished; created in 1977 or earlier; author died within the last 70 years
Will be protected by copyright until 70 years after the death of the author. Get permission from current copyright owner.

Unpublished; created in 1977 or earlier; author alive
Will be protected by copyright until 70 years after the death of the author. Get permission from current copyright owner.

Unpublished; created in 1978 or later; author dead or alive
Will be protected by copyright until 70 years after the death of the author. Get permission from current copyright owner.

*NOTE: The above information was prepared to assist Michigan libraries in projects involving digitization of U.S. materials for access through the World Wide Web. The above is limited to U.S. copyright law and does not address digitization of non-U.S. materials, nor does it address non-digital duplication by libraries or the digitization of materials for in-house, non-Web use. For links to web pages covering these and other copyright issues, see:  mcls.org/cms/sitem.cfm/library_tools/copyright_/copyright_links/

This document is not protected by copyright. Please feel free to copy and distribute.