Using Items from the Library’s Website: Understanding Copyright
Here’s the most important thing to know: If you can see or hear the materials on the Library of Congress website, you may view or listen to them on the site. We are making them available to you for that very purpose.
If you want to use or reuse the materials beyond our website, though, you need to be aware of copyright and other rights restrictions. (Just because we’ve put a work online doesn’t mean that you can freely reuse it.) You need to decide for yourself whether the way you plan to use the materials is allowed under copyright law. To do that, you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions: whether the work is subject to copyright, whether you have permission to use the work, and whether the way you plan to use the materials falls within a copyright exception. We provide this guide to assist users to understand and navigate the copyright status of the materials that the Library of Congress provides.
Copyright is a form of legal protection that fosters innovation and creative expression by protecting the rights of authors in their original works while simultaneously encouraging the creation and dissemination of new works. While ideas and facts may not be copyrighted, copyright law protects materials created in a variety of forms: sculptures and architectural works, books and letters, music, photographs, paintings, movies, and more. Under current U.S. law, an original work is automatically protected by copyright when it is created and fixed (basically, writing it down or recording it in some manner), even if it is not accompanied by a copyright notice or a copyright symbol (©). Works created before March 1989 have different rules about notice. Copyright eventually expires; when that happens, works enter the “public domain” and are free to use and reuse. Article I, Section 8, clause 8 of the United States Constitution provides authority for the Copyright Act, found in title 17 of the United States Code (17 U.S.C. § 101, et seq.).
Copyright law plays an important role in promoting creativity by protecting the creations of authors, artists, musicians, and others from unauthorized copying, distribution, adaptation, public display, and public performance. Because each use of a work is unique, this guide provides only general and somewhat simplified information and should not be taken as legal advice. You, as a user of Library collections, ultimately have the responsibility for complying with copyright law.
For more information on the fundamentals of copyright, see the Copyright Office’s "Copyright Basics." Review the Copyright Office’s Frequently Asked Questions, the Copyright Office's copyright educational video series, and other Copyright Office publications like its Circulars, Fair Use Index, and Compendium, or consult an attorney if you have additional questions about copyright.
Copyright law protects works by giving authors certain rights over the copying, distribution, adaptation, public performance, and public display of their creative expression. Digital works are protected in the same way as non-digital works are protected. Works produced by authors or creators within the United States may be protected by U.S. copyright law. Works produced by authors or creators outside of the United States may also be protected under U.S. law, the law of another country, international agreements, or a combination of laws. Items the Library has received through donations, gifts, or purchases may have additional or separate restrictions on their use based on accompanying gift agreements, purchase terms, or licenses.
Importantly, works produced by federal government employees in the course of their employment are generally not protected by copyright and are in the public domain in the U.S. This includes works produced by Library of Congress employees in the course of their duties at the Library. Unless otherwise indicated on this site, the Library of Congress has no objection to the international use and reuse of Library U.S. Government works on loc.gov. These works are also available for worldwide use and reuse under CC0 1.0 Universal.
The Library makes its collections materials available online based on a variety of factors:
- If the work is in the public domain or has no known copyright restrictions
- If the Library has permission for specific uses
- If the Library’s presentation falls within a copyright exception, as assessed by the Library.
The Library cannot give you permission to use items in our collections, because we generally do not own the copyright to materials in our collections. We also cannot contact rightsholders for permission. Whenever possible, we will provide the most accurate information we have based on what we know about the materials in our collections. To determine if you can use the material in the collections for a certain purpose, answer the three questions below.
Items in the public domain may be freely used for any purpose because the rights to reproduce and distribute these materials belong to the public as a whole. These items will be identified as "public domain" or "no known copyright restrictions" in the rights statement. Works might be available for use for several reasons:
Because of age: In general, the older an item is, the more likely it is to be in the public domain. Most items published in the United States more than 95 years ago are now in the public domain. Items that were never published, like letters and family photographs, are copyrighted for the life of the creator plus 70 years. Also, many items published before 1964 may be in the public domain because their rights holder did not renew copyright registration as required under prior law; current law does not require renewal.
The rules on the length of copyright have changed over time, most recently in 1998. Current law provides copyright protection for a work for (1) the life of the author plus seventy years and, (2) for works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works, for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
To see if the material you seek to use is in the public domain because its copyright has expired, consult resources like the following:
- Copyright Office, "Duration of Copyright".
- Peter B. Hirtle, "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States". external link
- The Copyright Office, for a fee, can research its records on copyright status. See Copyright Office Records Research and Certification Services.
- Many online databases and other resources can assist in identifying copyright status. For example, useful resources include the Copyright Office Public Catalog of post-1978 registrations, the Copyright Office Virtual Card Catalog (a pilot for pre-1978 works), the Stanford Books Copyright Renewal Database external link, and the University of Pennsylvania Serials Renewal Database external link
Because they were never covered by copyright: Many things are not protected by copyright at all. For example, words and short phrases, simple geometric shapes, and works made by federal employees in the scope of their employment are generally not covered by copyright. For more information on works not subject to copyright, see Copyright Office, “Works Not Protected by Copyright” and Copyright Office Compendium of Copyright Office Practices, Sections 313 (including Section 313.6(C))
Because of their creator: A creator can intentionally allow their work to be used freely without copyright restrictions. If they did, it should say so in the rights statement.
Because of a license: In many instances, the person who created an item has given broad permissions for it to be used. This may include specific permissions for particular uses, such as research, education, or non-commercial uses. These should be reflected in the Rights and Access information on the item. The item may also be covered by a Creative Commons license, which allows use if the particular license conditions are followed. See the Creative Commons Website external link for more information.
Three major exceptions allow you to use an item without permission if your use meets the standards for the exception: for teachers; for fair uses; and for libraries and archives. [There are other exceptions, like special rules for people with visual disabilities (See Section 121 of the Copyright Act), special exceptions for libraries and archives (See Section 121 of the Copyright Act), special exceptions for libraries and archives (See Section 108 of the Copyright Act), and rules for non-commercial uses of pre-1972 sound recordings (See Section 1401 of the Copyright Act).]
If a work is not in the public domain or licensed through Creative Commons or other means, and no copyright exception applies to your proposed use, you will need to obtain permission for the use from the copyright holder.
Determine who the rights holder is
In some cases, it may be possible to determine the rights holder simply by looking at the “Rights and Access” information notice (see Part II), or by examining the work and looking for the copyright notice, publisher, or author. In other cases, more research may be required. Learn more about how to determine who the rights holder might be if it is not available from the above locations in “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work”.
Contact the rights holder and ask permission
In some cases, the rights holder will permit particular uses of their work, so it doesn’t hurt to ask them. Asking a rights holder for permission can be as simple as sending an email. Be sure to get permission in writing and clarify the important details of your use:
- Describe the item you want permission to use
- Describe how long you plan to use the item
- Explain how you plan to use the item
- Provide information about the context of the use
If permission is granted: be sure you adhere to the terms of your request, and of course, be sure to credit the source!
What if I can’t find the rights-holder?
Sometimes, it is not possible to find the rights holder of a work. Works for which no rights holder is locatable after a reasonable search are referred to as "orphan works." There is no special legal protection for using works just because they are orphan works, so you cannot use a work without permission simply because the rights holder cannot be easily located. However, the other exceptions and options listed above (such as fair use) may still apply, or the work may be old enough that it is in the public domain.
For more information on searching for rights owners and determining if the target work is an orphan work, see:
- The Society for American Archivists, “Orphan Works: Statement of Best Practices” external link
- The U.S. Copyright Office, “Orphan Works and Mass Digitization: A Report of the Register of Copyrights”
Awesome! If you have more information about material on our websites or are able to provide specific, additional information about the copyright status of a particular item in our collection, please contact us at https://ask.loc.gov/ or, where available, at the address listed in the “About this Collection” entry for the item. Please include a link to the item. If you are the copyright holder and believe our websites have not properly attributed your work or have used it without permission, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with your contact information and a link to the relevant content.
Privacy and publicity rights are separate and distinct from copyright. Copyright is protected by federal law under the United States Copyright Act, whereas privacy and publicity rights are primarily governed by state law. What is allowed in one state may not be allowed in another. If you use materials from our websites, then you are responsible for determining whether there are privacy and publicity rights considerations. Factors to consider include the type of materials and their intended use.
Other legal issues may include trademark and classified status. Finally, the Library asks that researchers approach the materials in our collections with respect for the culture and sensibilities of the people whose lives, ideas, and creativity are documented here.
Last updated: February 7, 2020