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Digital Projects Toolkit: Copyright


Copyright & Digitization

Copyright is a major factor that needs to be considered before starting a digital project. You do not want to be halfway through a digitization project, for example, and then discover you cannot share the scanned items due to copyright. Then all of that time and money will have been for nothing. You also do not want to digitize something, make it available online, and then get yourself into legal trouble.

Sure, copyright can be intimidating. When it comes to digitization projects, copyright is a significant concern. It can make or break a digital project, and it often determines whether a potential project is worth pursuing or not. However, being informed about copyright can alleviate some of the burden. And in doing so, you will discover that copyright is not so frightening after all.

Determining Copyright

If you have concerns or uncertainties about copyright when it comes to digitizing and digital collections, first do your research. Once you have a general understanding of copyright, then you can take what you have learned and apply it to your digitization project.

Steps to Determine Copyright

Use the resources provided here and follow these steps to determine the copyright status of an item:

  1. Evaluate the item
    • If possible, determine the date the item was created or published.
    • Was this item ever published or registered? In the case of a book, for example, it is highly likely that is was either published or registered in the U.S. In the case of a letter, for example, it is unlikely that it was ever published or registered in the U.S.
  2. Evaluate copyright
    • Use the Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States resource from Cornell University Library to determine the category of the item (published/ registered, unpublished/ unregistered, etc.), conditions, and copyright term.
    • If an item falls into the public domain, then it is no longer protected by copyright and it can be freely scanned and made accessible.
  3. Additional research
    • In some cases, additional copyright research will be required beyond the above resource from Cornell. You may need to search the various copyright catalogs, or search a copyright renewal database, to see if the item was ever copyrighted later or if the copyright was renewed.
  4. Permissions
    • If you are not sure if an item is protected by copyright or not, get permission from the owner/ creator. Have them sign a permission form or a copyright release form.
    • The Digital Initiatives department at the ND State Library has templates available. Contact Digital Initiatives for more information.
  5. Rights Statement
    • If your digital content will be made publicly accessible online, it is best practice to provide a rights statement that clearly identifies and explains the copyright status of the item.
    • Consult the Rights Statements page for more information.

Resources for Determining Copyright


The staff of the Digital Initiatives department at the North Dakota State Library are not lawyers, nor are they copyright experts. Digital Initiatives will provide help to the best of their ability, but any information provided does not constitute legal advice.

See Also

Additional Reading & Resources

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Many of these resources and programs are funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.