As the custodians of the physical objects, the University of Iowa Libraries exercises a property right and conditions access to manuscripts and other primary source materials in either print or electronic formats with an understanding that readers will seek the Libraries’ permission to publish substantial portions of materials they are permitted to use, whether copyright to those materials is owned by the Libraries or by someone else. The University may elect in some cases to collect or negotiate use fees. Send requests for permission to publish to the staff of the Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries (

In discussing copyright laws, there are two related concepts it is important to understand: property rights and “fair use” of copyrighted materials.

A person or an institution may buy or otherwise acquire a “work fixed in a tangible medium” and thereby own the physical object — the letter, the draft of a story or a report, a book or other publication, a photograph, a CD-ROM, a DVD, even a song on an iPod. By doing so the person or institution does not thereby acquire any part of the author’s or creator’s copyright — i.e., the right to create and market further copies. Nonetheless, individuals and institutions do have rights to sell, donate, circulate, loan — or destroy — the actual property they own. Donors to libraries sometimes place conditions on access to materials they give, often to protect the privacy of individuals who may be named or described in them. While libraries resist these restrictions, preservation of important materials may require they accept and honor them. Some vendors, particularly of electronic or digital materials, may also restrict access to their products to protect their copyright (and income).

Copyright law thus provides copyright holders with a monopoly — but a monopoly with two limitations. First, to encourage intellectual, cultural, and economic growth, the law permits “fair use” of copyrighted material. “Fair use” is a “fuzzy” idea, not a specific list of “dos and don’ts.” For a full explanation of the fair use provisions, go to the Copyright Office’s website ( where you will find a statement of the law and other advisory documents. Briefly, the law permits generous, but not entirely unrestricted, use of materials for the kinds of purposes typical of scholarship and library reseach. The University of Iowa Libraries urges scholars and researchers to understand and exercise fully their “fair use” rights. The University of Minnesota maintains a web site that thoroughly explores copyright and fair use from the perspectives of students and scholars, and the Columbia University Law School has developed a more general but very accessible “Keep Your Copyrights” site at  Some readers may also find useful two tools created by the American Library Association, the Fair Use Evaluator and Fair Use Exceptions for Instructors.

Second, the copyright monopoly does not last forever. Eventually the copyright passes into the “public domain,” and anyone who chooses to do so can make and sell or distribute copies.

The United States copyright law which took effect on January 1, 1978, established a single system of statutory protection for all copyrightable works, whether published or unpublished. For works created after January 1, 1978, the law provided a term lasting for the author’s life, plus an additional 50 years after the author’s death. This was extended to 70 years by the Sonny Bono Term Extension Act, PL 105-298, passed in 1998.

For unpublished works that were already in existence on January 1, 1978, the acts generally provided automatic federal copyright protection for the same terms provided for new works. All works in this category were guaranteed at least 45 years of statutory protection, which expired December 31, 2002 for many works that remained unpublished. However, if the work was published between 1978 and 2003, the term was extended by another 45 years, through the end of 2047.

This rather complex set of requirements assures that most materials that were published in 1922 or earlier are now in the public domain, though there may still be exceptions. The considerations for unpublished materials and materials published in 1923 or later have been reduced by University of North Carolina law professor Lolly Gasaway to a very useful chart which is posted at; a similar chart by Peter Hirtle, somewhat more focused on unpublished work but including sound recordings and non-U.S. copyrights, is at Works first copyrighted between 1923 and 1963 had to be renewed in order to continue in copyright; Stanford University has created a Copyright Renewal Database for this period, for books only, from Copyright Office records that can be helpful in determining if renewal took place. The Society of American Archivists has compiled a useful guide and flowchart for working with “orphan work,” circumstances in which a rights holder is difficult or impossible to identify.

To quote material in excess of “fair use” in another publication — i.e., to quote in whole or “substantial” part from unpublished manuscript or other copyrighted material — and avoid possible litigation, permission must normally be secured from the author or his/her heirs or executors. Two online databases, Writers And Their Copyright Holders, (http:/ and Firms Out of Business ( may help to identify the executors of many novelists, poets, and artists. Scholars seeking advice on use of “orphaned” and unpublished documents may find it useful to consult “Orphan Works: Statement of Best Practices.”

University of Iowa faculty, staff, and students may wish to be familar with the University’s policy on copyright retention.

rev 8/2010