Copyright Law for Unpublished Manuscripts & Archival Collections

By Jennifer Mueller

Libraries keep unpublished manuscripts, letters and other historical documents in archives. Unpublished works in archives are protected by U.S. copyright law, and authors maintain exclusive rights to control the duplication and distribution of their work. Although authors may transfer their copyright ownership to others or give a library ownership of the work itself, even if it is the only existing copy, this does not by itself transfer copyright in the work.

Libraries keep unpublished manuscripts, letters and other historical documents in archives. Unpublished works in archives are protected by U.S. copyright law, and authors maintain exclusive rights to control the duplication and distribution of their work. Although authors may transfer their copyright ownership to others or give a library ownership of the work itself, even if it is the only existing copy, this does not by itself transfer copyright in the work.

Unpublished Manuscripts

The 1976 Copyright Act defines publication as the act of copying a fixed work and distributing it to others. Copyright protection begins when a work is first fixed in permanent form. For literary works, words typed and saved on a computer or written on a piece of paper are considered “fixed” and entitled to copyright protection. Before the 1976 act took effect, works were not protected by copyright until they were published. However, the 1976 act provides that unpublished works created before 1978 are entitled to the same protection as those created afterward.

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Archives

Many libraries have archives of unpublished works, including manuscripts and letters, which are made available to researchers. The library does not hold the copyright to these materials merely because the copies are owned by the library, even if the archives’ copy is the only existing copy of the work. The copyright in these works remains with the author or heirs of the author, and protects the work for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years after the author’s death.

Reproductions by Libraries

The U.S. Copyright Act provides specific exemptions that allow librarians to copy works in the library’s collection without first obtaining permission from the works’ copyright holders. To qualify for the exception, the library must be open to the general public. If particular archives are restricted, they must still be open to researchers. This exception allows libraries to make up to three copies of unpublished works for preservation purposes, to replace damaged copies, or to share with other libraries or at a user’s request. Each copy must include a notice of copyright. The library may charge a fee to recover the actual cost of copying, but may not make a profit from the copying.

Fair Use

The doctrine of fair use allows the copying of copyrighted works in limited situations. While not every educational use is considered fair use, copying or quoting small amounts of copyrighted material, particularly for the purpose of historical research or criticism, may be considered fair use. Courts are more protective of unpublished work than of published work, however, reasoning that authors should have the right to control the first publication of their work.

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Library Copyright Law

References

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What Is Copyright Infraction?

With easily copied material available on the Internet, the likelihood of copyright infraction has increased. Copyright is a legal protection for the creators of original literary, musical, artistic and intellectual works. Protection generally lasts until 70 years after the creator’s death. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display and prepare derivative works of the original work. Protection automatically exists as soon as the work is in fixed or tangible form, but optional copyright registration gives the owner the right to sue in federal court to protect the copyright.

Copyright Laws for Using Someone Else's Work

A copyright protects original works in tangible form, such as manuscripts, music recordings or computer code, from being used without the owner's permission. Generally, if you want to use all or just a part of a copyrighted work, you must obtain permission from the copyright holder. Failure to do so is copyright infringement, which carries civil and criminal penalties. There is, however, a limited exception known as fair use.

Pros & Cons of Copyright Laws

A copyright is a legal monopoly, granted by the federal government, that allows the creator of an original work of authorship to prevent others from using, displaying, profiting from or adapting that work. Copyrights protect both artistic works and computer software programs. Copyright law is designed to balance the economic and moral rights of creators with the interest of society in using and enjoying works of authorship.

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