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Intellectual Property: Copyright, Fair Use, Permissions, and Citations


Copyright Basics for Archival Collections

When thinking about copyright and archival collections, it is necessary to separate the rights of the creator from the rights of the archive or library (repository) that has obtained the collection. In most cases the transfer of archival material to a repository does not also include a complete transfer of copyright to that repository. Because archival collections often contain a mixture of materials, with a variety of creator/rights holders represented, each item's copyright must be considered on its own merits.

The repository that maintains the archival collection may have its own requirements to consider when you request to use an archival work for scholarly or commercial purposes. They may charge a fee for use (often tied to a high resolution scan of the document), or ask that you cite the repository in a specific way when publishing. These requirements are no indication of the repository's ownership of copyright of the materials.

There are some additional issues to consider when thinking about copyright and archival collections.


Copyright and international material

While there is no international copyright law, the Berne Convention, administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)  has set a minimum standard for copyright protection for those countries who have signed on to the agreement.

The minimum duration of protection offered by the Berne Convention is life of the creator plus 50 years. For anonymous works the duration is 50 years after the date the work was first made public. Art and photographic works are protected 25 years after creation.

There are two major principles to the Berne Convention to consider:

  • National Treatment: Copyright protection must be granted to foreign nationals who have signed on to the Berne Convention in the same way it is granted to domestic signers of the Berne Convention. For example, if a work created by a Chinese author, but is now being used in the United States, that artist must be granted the same copyright protections as a US citizen.
  • Automatic protection: A creative work is automatically protected by copyright once it is fixed in a tangible medium ( ex: paper, digital file formats, film and audio tape,  etc.).

Copyright and unpublished material

Many archival collections contain unpublished works. Under US copyright law these works are afforded protections like any other creative work, and in certain instances, the courts affords copyright holders of unpublished works more protections than works that have been published (since authors of unpublished material have the right of first sale). As with copyright for published works, the duration of copyright is life of the author plus 70 years. If the death of the author is unknown, or the author is a corporate body, then the term is 120 years from the date of creation.

Copyright and visual material

Visual materials (photographs, illustrations, artwork, and in some cases performances, etc.) are treated somewhat differently from text-based works. The reason for this is that when using copyrighted visual materials in one's own work, you often have to use the majority of the image to illustrate your point. Because the limits of fair use include the amount or extent of the use, in many cases using visual materials is doubly prohibited. 

Best practices for using visual materials are as follows:

  • Use only those images, or portions of images, that illustrate your point
  • The use of the image should be secondary to the point it intends to illustrate
  • The size and resolution of the image should be only as large as is required to illustrate your point
  • Extra consideration should be taken when using reproductions of born-digital works in a online environment
  • One should strive toward the most accurate representations of the original work
  • One should provide attribution of the original work, and the location where the reproduction was acquired

Creating Item Descriptions

General Information

Generally Archival Collections have their own preferred citation style that they make clear on their website or in their online collections portal. However, because most items in archival collections are unpublished and unique you may need to create an item description.
The purpose of an item description is to convey, as specifically as possible, the nature of the work being referenced (its title and/or descriptive information), when it was created, and the identity of its creators. While there are often specific formats for conveying this information offered by the archive caring for the collection, the most important thing is to provide complete and accurate information. 
If you need to provide information in your own words (as with a descriptive image caption when a title is not provided), it is customary to provide the information surrounded by [brackets.]

Barnard Archives offers these preferred citations for its collections: 

Archival materials:
Identification of Specific Item; Date (if known); Collection number - Collection name, inclusive dates; Box and Folder; Barnard Archives and Special Collections, Barnard Library, Barnard College.

Photographic or A/V archival materials:
Subject; Location/Description; Date (if known); Collection number - Collection name, inclusive dates (if applicable); Barnard Archives and Special Collections, Barnard Library, Barnard College

Captions: "Courtesy of the Barnard Archives and Special Collections."

Selected Item Description Forms:

Artwork (Illustration, Photograph, etc.):
Artist Name, Title of Work, YYYY, Medium of work,
Example: Auguste Rodin, The Thinker,1880-81. Bronze sculpture,

Author Name to Recipient Name; DD Month YYYY,
Example: James Oglethorpe to the Trustees, 13 January 1733,

Author Name, memorandum, YYYY,
Example: Alvin Johnson, memorandum, 1937,

Author Name, Name of Pamphlet (Location of Publisher, State: Publisher Name, YYYY),
Example: Hazel V. Clark, Mesopotamia: Between Two Rivers (Mesopotamia, OH: Trumbull County Historical Society, 1957),

Newspaper Article:
Author Name, “Title of Article,” Name of Newspaper, Month DD, YYYY,
Example: Mike Royko, “Next Time, Dan, Take Aim at Arnold,” Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1992,

Artist Name, Title of Image on Slide (Publisher Location, State: Publisher Name, Date) slide type,
Example: Louis J. Mihalyi, Landscapes of Zambia, Central Africa (Santa Barbara, CA: Visual Education, 1975), 35mm slides, 40 frames.

Speaker Name, “Title of Speech” (speech, Location where Given, Town, State, Month DD, YYYY),
Example: Stacy D’Erasmo, “The Craft and Career of Writing” (speech, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, April 26, 2000),

Unpublished Manuscript:
Author Name, “Title of Manuscript” (unpublished manuscript, Month DD, YYYY),
Example: Nora Bradburn, “Watch Crystals and the Mohs Scale” (unpublished manuscript, December 3, 2008),
For additional examples please consult: