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Collections Management Training

Online Collections Management training

How to preserve your community or family archive

Advice on how to manage and organise your archive

Collections Management 3: copyright legislation


Need to learn more about copyright?

Want to understand how it relates to your collection?


Copyright is an intellectual property right designed to “give legal protection to people who create ideas and express them in certain forms, such as text, photographs, drawings, sound recordings, music, films, etc” [1]. Copyright can be sold, transferred, licensed, given or bequeathed by the copyright owner. The default position is that copyright passes to the legally appointed heirs of the creator until the term expires.

Copyright lasts for different lengths of time according to various factors, including the type of item, whether or not it has been published and whether the creator/author is known. The copyright in unpublished items can last a very long time: until 2039 in some cases.

Here is an overview of the main types of work you are likely to encounter, and the duration of copyright:

Artistic works where the creator is known: lifetime of the creator plus 70 years. Please note- artistic works include photos, drawings, diagrams, maps and plans, not just paintings
Literary works (published, broadcast or offered for sale): lifetime of the author plus 70 years. Please note: literary works includes anything written such as letters, emails, diaries, articles, not just books.
Sound recordings: 50 years from the end of the year in which made; or if published, 50 years from the date of publication. Please see our oral history fact sheet 3 for Oral History/Spoken History interviews as these are more complicated.
Films (home movies): 70 years after the death of the person who carried out the filming.


The duration of copyright in “orphan works” - that is, works whose authorship is unknown, is as follows:

Artistic orphan works: 70 years from the date the work was created, or from the latest date it could have been created, if the date is unknown.
Literary orphan works: 70 years from the date of publication.


So, what does this mean for you and your collection?

  • All the documents you are likely to have in your collection will be subject to copyright (although in some cases it may have expired).
  • Copyright does not automatically transfer to you when you take receipt of new material. The copyright status needs to be explicitly mentioned and recorded on your paperwork. Even if the person presenting the documents to you is not the copyright owner, and does not know who is, this fact should still be recorded.
  • You can still take receipt of, and look after, material where the copyright owner is unknown. But it does restrict what you can do in relation to copying and publishing the material. Remember that putting documents onto websites, or sharing via social media or the internet, counts as publishing.

Your website or online resource/s should include a "take down" statement which makes it clear that if you have inadvertently infringed copyright, you will take down the offending image/s. It should include the following elements:

  • We have tried to identify copyright owners and have kept a record of our efforts to do so.
  •  We are placing images on this site in good faith but will take them down upon request as soon as you can show to our satisfaction that you are the current copyright owner.


You can find more information about copyright via the following links and publications:

Copyright for Archivists and Record Managers by Tim Padfield. Contains a very helpful flowchart

Copyright: interpreting the law for libraries, archives and information services by Graham P Cornish

[1] Quote from “Preserving Australia’s Documentary Heritage, National Library of Australia, 2004

Page updated: 23/11/2020 Page updated by: Ally McConnell

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