Beam it Up Archivist(A Law Case Study)

Learning Objectives

  • Students will examine a situation related to copyright and make decisions on how to provide access to records given a complex copyright scenario.


You’re in a bit of pickle. You’ve been tasked with “getting it all online”. This is a mandate not from your direct supervisor, but from some unknown higher up, who to you seems like a shadowy figure with the title of VP of something or other very scary sounding. This means you have to decide how to approach getting your collections online. You know how to digitize, but you’re having trouble with a few collections. Mainly you’ve run into some intellectual property concerns.

You have the materials from a local politician. There seem to be some records related to state and local government, but there are a lot of correspondence between donors, constituents, and others of a very, very personal nature. Most of the materials are fairly routine, but this is a large collection.

You have the materials from a local author. This includes unpublished manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, and photographs. The deed of gift for this collection did not implicitly give you the ability to digitize and publish materials form this collection, but it did not prevent it. There is a clause about copyright being transferred at the death of the author’s spouse. This spouse died recently, but a second cousin once removed is contesting the will and wants to take control of the author’s estate.

You also have a local historical society’s records. These date from the late 1700’s until nearly the present. These materials include documents, photographs, post cards, audio recordings, and videos. The audio recordings are mostly of local concerts. The music presented at these concerts vary from classical to modern popular music. You only have the recordings and no other information about them including recording contracts and licenses for the public preformances.


  • How would you approach making decisions about placing these materials online?
  • How thorough of a copyright search would you need to do before making these decisions?
  • How would you mitigate your risk once you place materials online?


  • Dickson, Maggie. “Due diligence, futile effort: Copyright and the digitization of the Thomas E. Watson papers.” The American Archivist 73, no. 2 (2010): 626-636.
  • Hirtle, Peter. “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States”

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