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.
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:
Many archival collections contain unpublished works.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afforded protections like any other creative work, and in certain instances, the courts affords copyright holders of unpublished works more protections than works that have been published (since authors of unpublished material have the right of first sale).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.
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:
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."