6 copyright considerations before you pick up the phone to the lawyer

April 25, 2017 mallindine

6 copyright considerations before you pick up the phone to the lawyer



Most of us don’t like small print and we’d rather have lawyers deal with contract and copyright issues. But there’s a danger you can find yourself with a pile of documents and no real idea what the lawyers have cooked up for you.  It’s better to do your homework first, and seek advice when you know what you want for your collection.



1. Rights in your archive material

Most historical archives hold some material with uncertain rights. Documentation is often lacking, but you need to find out what information you have and decide how much of your material is safe to use. Gather as much information as you can about provenance, creation date, creator and rights and make sure you can link to relevant paperwork.

2. How to give the green light

Divide the material into categories of risk. Where you have full information, consents and a licence to use, you can give the green light, as you can for known out-of-copyright images.  For those with unknown status you will want to make judgements based on the age and type of image, and the level of risk involved in using them.

3. Contracts – what are you trying to say?

Sound agreements with suppliers and copyright holders are important. Some of the questions to discuss in advance are:

  • Is an exclusive licence required or will images be licensable elsewhere?
  • Should an agreement for new material cover similar to the ones selected?
  • Is there a need to protect the rights of people in the images? Does this affect the type of licence granted?
  • Are there reasons to limit the time period of the agreement? (Consents for children are often time limited)
  • Are there reasons to limit the media for the agreement? (Some images may be unsuitable for display on social media for example)
  • What metadata is required for supplied images, and whose responsibility is post processing and selection?

4. Control over usage

Do you want full control over your images? You may want to watermark images, or restrict access to some parts of the collection. Low res previews can be shared online.  Without precautions, your images can be downloaded and shared on the web with no attribution or link to your archive.

5. What about free?

Some archives want to allow free use of some images. Different flavours of the Creative Commons or CC licence are available, but make sure you know what will work for you. Do you want images shared without attribution? Do you want to allow anyone to make money from your images?  How do you feel about images being altered or ‘mashed’?

6. Which CC licence?

Look at what other archives are doing.  Some use their own variations of CC, others, like the Rjiks Museum allow completely free use of all their images. The route you take will depend on who owns the copyright, how dependent you are on income stream, and what you identify as  primary aim of your archive. Just beware – once an image is out there as CC it cannot be withdrawn. Caution is the best policy.

Sarah Saunders


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