Copyright and the Archival Experience

My goal to get on with creating policies for our Special Collections and  Manuscript Archive has met headlong with the inevitable thrill of the Summer Reading Program. Not to say that I am not happy at seeing the kids excited about reading and libraries, but little else beyond my circulation duties and keeping my pile of repairs to a minimum is getting done. That being said this week I am returning to why I am working on creating library policies in the first place.

My Director from the very beginning has stated that he wants to be able to allow access to our small collection via digitization. Now we as archivists all know that there is a huge gap between having items and throwing them out on the Internet. The first hurdle is . . . All together now . . . We must create policies for our collection (see my current bible The Lone Arranger by Christina Zamon). General policies and deeds of gift are the first to come to mind and the Highland City Library currently has neither.

In the informational fields copyrights are one of the top things to keep all of us up at night. This has been made evident by lawsuits against the likes of Google and HathiTrust and their digitization projects in conjunction with academic institutions. Digital copyright is a big issue, but so is everyday copyright. And as archivists we are in the unenviable position of creating airtight deeds of gift and permissions of use forms covering every conceivable use of items donated to our collections. And probably some we have not even thought of yet.

Periodically this issue comes forward in the listservs in the form of, Can we go back to a donor and have them sign a new deed of gift covering such and such (i.e. digitization)? The consensus recently seemed to be a resounding yes which comes as a relief because I have to track down our small list of donors and approach them with a deed of gift as soon as I write one.

Last month on the Lone Arranger listserv an archivist brought up the issue of creating a permission of use form and fee schedule for a for-profit entity that wanted to use items from the archive. Some of the suggestions from other archivists were to make sure the permissions use form included credit for the archive, provision of only one use, and in no uncertain terms charging the user to seek copyright permission from the original creator.

This last suggestion hit home with an article from the most recent Archival Outlook titled “Copyright Infringement on the Docket”. In the article by Peter B. Hirtle the lesson learned is that the original owner of the copyright should always be contacted especially if the deed of gift is confusing to the point that it negates itself completely. If you have not read the article do so it is even available online for SAA members (

And that brings us back to those airtight policies and deeds of gift. Suggestions here include to have things looked over by a lawyer (sometimes easier said than done) and make sure that you have control over the terms of the donation. Stand by your ability to say no to accepting anything into the archive that includes confusing or severely limiting terms and conditions by the donator and/or originator. The Smithsonian Institution aka the U.S. government has found out the hard way that solid deeds of gift are crucial in the world of copyright law.


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