Copyrights (long and complicated question)

← Return to forum

  • I have questions that are slightly outside the library realm but was hoping
    anyone could help me with - advice and/or point me in a direction to find more
    information. It deals with copyright, intellectual property rights, non-profits and conflicts of interest.
    Here is the scenario:

    I am a Board member for a local historical society (501(c)(3)). We are doing pretty well financially considering recent times. We also receive a yearly donation from our city government (tax-payer supported). A few years ago, we received a $30,000 technology grant/donation from a family. At the around the same time we received an archive of newspapers from a former publisher (the newspaper is still currently published under a new name and I believe is owned by Gannett). We used the grant to buy several computers and a server. Two of our Board members (a now divorced couple) spent many, many hours volunteering to scan all the newspapers to create a searchable archive. They also have been scanning family photographs and images of the city, buildings, etc. that range from the 1800s to the 1960s+. I believe they originally used their own scanning equipment and did much of it at home. I think they even procured (I don’t know if they paid for it) a blueprint-size scanner since the newspapers are larger format. It is almost an entire run of a newspaper back to the 1800s but they have continued scanning up to the 1970s. I don’t know what the exact agreement was – I am trying to find a paper trail. I believe the publisher of the newspaper donated it to the historical society but the person scanning said he had an agreement with the historical society or the publisher that he would retain the electronic images. I got on the Board after most of this was set in motion and had always had an uneasy feeling since they also started a for-profit newspaper research business at the same time. They also enlisted the help of another member to create homegrown search software. We also have a monthly program to scan photographs that people bring in – we then return the originals to them. I have several concerns:

    1. We have some restrictions on some of the donated and scanned images
    2. Who actually owns the images

    One of my main concerns involves both 1 and 2. The couple I mentioned have listed that the scanned newspaper collection is restricted by them. Shouldn’t these images be the property of the historical society itself and the restrictions would be decided upon by the Board? Or was there a legal violation by even scanning the newspapers into a digital format? I don’t believe we have people sign any release forms when they donate their pictures for scanning. And I don’t what the agreement was with the couple regarding ownership of the images. Considering that their business provides a newspaper article research service for profit, this all seems to be a conflict of interest on their part. Do you have any advice or anywhere I could find out information on copyright, non-profits and conflict of interest? Also, our new Board president is an attorney (family law).

    Any help, advice, examples or nudge in the right direction would help and be greatly appreciated!


  • There are a lot of issues here. The questions relating to the agreement between the society and the individuals (and perhaps the granting agencies) seem to me to be a matter of contract law and not copyright law (so outside of the scope of this Forum).

    In the situation you described, copyright law would come into play in determining whether each original item was in the public domain or was still protected by copyright when the originals were scanned. See CAN's digital copyright slider for a summary of public domain and "protected by copyright" dates.

    For published materials like the local newspaper, articles prior to 1923 would be in the public domain (and no one can claim copyright in them) and articles 1923 and later could be still protected by copyright, probably owned by the newspaper publisher. Unless the scanning process added something original to the scanned articles (which seems doubtful in this case, but not impossible), then the people doing the scanning would not own copyright in the scanned articles. In other words, the content of the scanned articles from the public domain articles would be in the public domain, and the content of the scanned articles from the copyright-protected articles would be owned by the newspaper publisher (or other copyright owner).

    For unpublished materials like family photographs, you can see from the slider that determining whether these have gone into the public domain is a little more difficult unless you have clear knowledge of who the creator was and when/if the creator died. If the scanning process did not add anything sufficiently original to the photographs, then the people doing the scanning would not own copyright in the digitized images.

    Also, questions relating to the ownership of the digital files themselves (as opposed to the copyright ownership of the content of the materials) would be a matter of contract law, not copyright law. For example, let's say a university digitizes a photograph taken in 1890 that is in the public domain. The university posts a .jpg of the image on the university website and keeps a .tif of the image in storage (not on the website). The university could advertise that it will sell copies of the .tif file on request, even though they're not claiming copyright in the content of the public domain image.
  • We do not allow advertising on this forum. Thanks.

Posting to the forum is only available to users who are logged in.

← Return to forum