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Copyright: Patron Guide to Copyright and Historical Materials

Assessing the Risk of Using an NLM Item

The information below applies to use of material in the United States. Use outside the U.S. is governed by the laws of the country in which the material is being used.

May I use an item that I’ve found in the Library collections?

Sometimes the answer is very clear, while at other times it is not. In all cases, it is the patron’s obligation to determine and satisfy copyright or other use restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials in the Library’s collections. The questions below will help you determine what the Library knows about the item’s copyright status.

What does the Library know about the rights associated with the item?

When the Library has determined an item’s status it makes every effort to convey that information to patrons through catalog or metadata records.
If no catalog or metadata record is available or if the record states that copyright needs to be established, you will need to determine the rights information related to the item or collection yourself.

What do the notes found in Library catalog and metadata records mean?

When Library staff receive or gather information on rights for individual items, they have generally added explanatory notes to the catalog or metadata record.

Catalog and metadata records may contain the following information:

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  • When the record says Public Domain this means that the Library believes the item is no longer subject to copyright protection. This phrase is used for:

    • Works of the federal government. Items from the federal government are generally not eligible for copyright protection.
    • Works published before 1923 are now in the public domain.
    • Works that have not been published and the author died more than 70 years ago.
    • Works placed in the public domain by a deed of gift from the copyright owner.
    • Foreign works published before July 1, 1909.

    More detailed guidance is available on the following chart:

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  • Permission Granted By means that the Library has obtained permission for an item’s use and patrons must similarly contact the copyright owner to obtain permission before any use beyond the U.S. Copyright fair use provisions. The Library will generally furnish last known contact information unless the copyright owner has asked to keep that information private.

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  • A Disclaimer Statement is used when the Library has not been able to contact or locate a copyright owner.
    For example:
    The Profiles in Science® website uses the following statement:

    “The National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science program has made every effort to secure proper permissions for posting items on the website. In this instance, however, it has either not been possible to identify or contact the current copyright owner. If you have information regarding the copyright owner, please contact us at”

    The Prints and Photographs Collections uses the following statement:

    “The Images from the History of Medicine (IHM) database is a catalog of the prints and photographs collection of the National Library of Medicine (NLM). The purpose of the database is to assist users in finding illustrative material for private study, scholarship, and research. The NLM does not own the copyright to the images in the database, nor do we charge access or permission fees for their use. We do request, however, that published images include the credit line Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.”

    Since the NLM does not own the copyright to the images, it is the responsibility of anyone using the database, or ordering reproductions based on information in it, to ensure that use of this material is in compliance with the U. S. Copyright law (Title 17, United States Code).

    The Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program has the following copyright statement:

    “Catalog records and finding aids for manuscript collections will state the copyright status as determined by each deed of gift. Copyright was transferred to the public domain or Copyright was transferred to the NLM indicate the donor transferred all their copyrights to any unpublished or published works in the collection. This mainly refers to correspondence and other unpublished items written by the donor, but not to any items received or collected by the donor, e.g. the copyright to letters written by others and received by the donor still remain with the sender. There may also be permission to publish and/or reproduction restrictions defined in the deed of gift which relate to the copyright issue.”

    For more information on copyright or how to initiate a copyright search, please contact the U.S. Copyright Office at 202-707-5959 or visit their website at

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  • When the Library is still investigating an item’s copyright status we may have a different note or no note in the record. In these cases you must make your own copyright determination. See Conducting Your Own Rights Evaluation.

    Rights statements can be confusing because items within a collection may have different copyright statuses. While the majority of items in a collection may be analyzed one way, there are exceptions. For example, some collections may have been placed in the public domain by the donor, but the copyright for some items in the collection may not belong to the donor and are therefore not in the public domain.

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Last Reviewed: May 17, 2018