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Copyright and Primary Sources

Use and Reproduction of Primary Source Materials

It is important to understand that using primary sources never implies the right to publish them or to quote from them extensively without first receiving permission from the repository as well as from copyright holders, if any. Read the finding aid carefully for information concerning copyright and/or donor restrictions that may apply to a particular collection. The following is a summary of the legal responsibilities that researchers have when they intend to publish primary sources.

United States Copyright Law

The copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) governs the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material. Under certain conditions specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized to furnish a photocopy or other reproduction. One of these specified conditions is that the photocopy or reproduction is not to be "used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research." If a user makes a request for, or later uses, a photocopy or reproduction for purposes in excess of "fair use," that user may be liable for copyright infringement. The repository may refuse to accept a copy order if, in its judgment, fulfillment of the order would involve violation of copyright law.

Many primary sources are old enough that they no longer fall under copyright protection (the copyright term has expired), and some were never copyrighted. Copyright protection differs for published and unpublished materials. For more information, see When works pass into public domain (University of North Carolina Web site).

Reproduction of Primary Sources on the Web

Primary source materials made available on the internet are for research use only. Be sure to read use information carefully before downloading or copying materials for purposes of reproduction. Publication and/or broadcast in any form (including electronic) generally requires written permission from the relevant archival repository and payment of applicable fees.

For purposes of private study, scholarship, and research, you may reproduce (print out, photocopy or download) materials from Web sites without prior permission. If you are citing materials, please give proper attribution of the source (see Citing Sources for appropriate forms of attribution.)

For information on how copyright law governs Internet resources, see the Copyright Considerations page from University of California, San Diego.

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Project funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Last update: May 24, 2004