Skip to content
Open menu Close menu

Special Collections and Copyright Law

Introducing copyright law

Copyright law in the UK is a property right, based on the right of a creator to benefit financially from what they create by forbidding the creation of copies without their permission.  The copyright holder may be that creator or their Estate or a company.  Copyright lasts for varying periods of time, known as "duration", after which material is out of copyright.  The law does however allow users to make copies for various purposes without permission. 

The law is complex, particularly for unpublished material/archives and photographic and audiovisual material.  We are dealing with centuries of legislation, in which new Acts have added layers of complications rather than simply replacing previous arrangements, not to mention the arrival of new technologies.  Copyright is often ambiguous, to the extent that sometimes it is not even possible to be clear as to whether an item is in copyright, let alone who might hold the rights.

The Special Collections Librarian is very happy to share what we know about copyright and to offer guidance to Special Collections users.  However, please note that this is not legal advice, that we don't have time to do detailed copyright research for you, and that any infringement of copyright is your own responsibility.

For help with copyright matters unrelated to Special Collections, see the Library's copyright pages.

Key points to understand

Owning a physical object does not necessarily equal ownership of intellectual property rights in it.  Thus even if Special Collections owns materials, we may not hold copyright in them.  The donor of an archive may hold some rights in it, or not.  Thus much material in our collections is third-party copyright i.e. rights held neither by the University or the donor of the material.  Some donors and third parties have licensed Special Collections to provide copies and permit publication under certain conditions.

Printed books are in copyright until 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies.  This means that many of our books are out of copyright, particularly in the Local, Quaker, Antiquarian and History of Science collections.  Other collections such as Priestley and Hawkes are mostly 20th/21st century and are in copyright.  Watch out for extensive annotation in older books, which may count as unpublished material and hence be in copyright. 

Readers should assume our archives are in copyright.  Perpetual copyright in “literary” i.e. text-based unpublished materials was ended by the 1988 Act and such materials come out of copyright 50 years after the Act i.e. 2039.   However the library/archive exception allows for copying of such materials for personal research unless forbidden by the copyright holder.

Copyright in artistic, photographic and audio-visual media is particularly complicated, involving multiple rights holders and different holders depending on the date of creation.  Enquirers should note that such material is not however covered by perpetual copyright and that older material may therefore be out of copyright.  For example, anonymous photographs over 70 years old are out of copyright (though if a rights holder becomes known, they may go back in!).  Fortunately recent legislation has allowed us to supply reproductions of copyright works in non-literary formats under the library/archive exceptions.  This covers such popular items as photographs, maps and plans and will be a great help to our users.

In many cases copyright holders are unknown and untraceable.  This does not mean these works are not in copyright however.  Such works are known as orphan works.  If you choose to use such works, you need to be sure you understand the risks involved.

Our catalogues wherever possible outline the copyright situation as we understand it, but many of our archives contain a multiplicity of third-party copyright materials which need to be addressed individually.