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Copyright: Patron Guide to Copyright and Historical Materials

About Copyright and the Collections

Whenever possible, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) provides information about copyright owners in its catalog or metadata records. The Library generally does not own rights in its collections and cannot grant or deny permission to publish or otherwise distribute material in its collections. The Library does not charge permission or usage fees for the use of its materials.

Reproduction, distribution, or screening (in the case of motion pictures) of protected items beyond U.S. Copyright Law’s fair use provisions requires the copyright owner's written permission. The copyright owner may require permission and fees independent of the Library. It is the patron's obligation to determine and satisfy copyright or other use restrictions when publishing or distributing materials found in the Library’s collections.

Patrons must make their own rights assessment in light of the intended use. The nature of historical archival collections means that copyright or other information about restrictions may be difficult or impossible to determine. The Library provides information as a service to aid patrons in determining the appropriate use of an item, but that determination ultimately rests with the patron.

The National Library of Medicine wants to hear from any copyright owners not properly identified on this website so that we can provide accurate information to patrons. Please contact us at NLM Customer Support.


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  • The Library cannot sign permission forms because:

    • The Library generally does not own intellectual property rights in its collections.
    • Since the Library does not require that you receive its permission before using an item, the only permission you need is what may be required from the copyright owner or donor, independent of the Library.
    • The Library cannot make a public domain determination.
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  • It can, indeed, be difficult to determine whether an image can be used. One problem is the copyright law traditionally was written for books and is increasingly being written for music and film, profitable media for the entertainment industry. The law has to be interpreted to determine its application to photographs and prints, and that is not always clear, as there is little case law regarding images to draw on for precedents. Another problem is that many orphan works images lack information needed for determining rights status or rights owners.

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  • Not necessarily. The Library displays images for those items that:

    • The Library believes are in the public domain
    • The rights have been released by the creator
    • The creator has agreed to allow the Library to display the items, but still retains the publication rights
    • The creator could not be identified or located and a disclaimer has been used; or
    • A rights analysis had not been completed yet.

    As always, you need to consider the rights issues, including copyright, privacy, publicity and related rights in light of your intended use. Assess your risk.

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  • When material from the Library’s collections is reproduced in a publication or website or otherwise distributed, the Library requests the courtesy of a credit line: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

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About this Patron Guide

The Patron Guide to Copyright and Historical Materials was written by Sandy Taylor using the Library of Congress copyright pages as guidance. Assistance was provided by Dr. Paul Theerman, Christie Moffatt, Crystal Smith, Michael North, Dr. Stephen Greenberg, Jan Lazarus, Meghan Attalla, and Cheri Smith, all of the History of Medicine staff.

Last Reviewed: May 17, 2018