Copyright Qs & As: Museum/Archives Issues

Do you have a question related to your museum or archive? A question about a sculpture or painting, rights and reproductions, exhibition marketing, in-house and visitor education? Ask your questions by commenting below.

15.1  Question:  Do you need permission to include images in a print museum catalogue that will be sold in a bookstore?

Answer: Yes, you should obtain permission whether or not the catalogue is being sold. The inclusion of the image is a reproduction of that work. In some circumstances, you may be able to imply permission from the circumstances but that would not be in every case. (2009-3)

15.2  Question:  May a museum display an item when the museum does not hold the copyright in the item? For example, may a museum display a picture or sculpture of a cartoon character? Or may a museum display an unlicensed drawing of a cartoon character?

Answer:  Some countries have a special right relating to your fact situations. For instance, in Canada, there is a right of exhibition “to present at a public exhibition, for a purpose other than sale or hire, an artistic work created after coming into force of this paragraph, other than a map, chart or plan or cinematographic production that is protected as a photograph”.  This is a right that belongs to the copyright owner of a work so you would need permission to exhibit a copyright-protected work in Canada.

15.3  Question:  We have several 19th century stoneware pieces on loan to our museum. We would like to photograph the pieces. Do we need permission from the owner to photograph the objects? Does the owner of the stoneware own the copyright to any of the images we take of the objects he owns?

Answer:  Sounds like the works are in the public domain and you are asking if the owner of the physical artifacts has to provide permission to photograph the items on loan.  You do not need permission in terms of copyright law, but check your loan agreement and see what it says regarding photographing the artifacts and who may own the photographs if they are permitted.

15.4  Question:  We have wallpapers in our historic house museums and wallpaper archive which were commercially available in the 1800s and 1900s.  Some of these companies still exist – do we need their permission to reproduce the wallpapers?

Answer:  Generally, wallpapers and functional items with designs on them are protected by another area of intellectual property called industrial design.  Check the industrial design laws in your country and determine the length of protection and when these works fall into the public domain.

15.5  Question:  Our museum has several video interviews that were donated to us by the interviewees.  What rights do we have in the video’s?

Answer:  Whoever recorded the interviews have the rights in the video recordings of them.  You need copyright permission from such persons to reproduce, post online, or otherwise use the videos in a copyright manner.  In addition, you should get releases (non-copyright ones) from the interviewees to ensure that they had agreed to the video recordings and any use that may be made of the recordings.

15.6  Question:  Our organization was given a small collections of photographs that were taken of various artists with their works. If we have permission from the photographer (also the donor) to publish these photos, do we also need permission from the artists (or their estates)that are in the photos? For the most part, the artwork in the photos now belongs to our organization.

Answer:  There are two legal issues you need to be concerned about in photographs of people. One is who owns the photographs — and whether permissions are needed to use the photos in certain manners. And two, what about the rights of the people in the photographs? In general, you should have a release from these people to protect against any claim against privacy and personality rights of the people in the photographs.

15.7 Question: When an artist or collector donates a painting to a museum, do the reproduction rights belong to the museum, artist or collector?

Answer: A donation of the painting means the physical painting is being given to the museum and not any of the copyrights, unless these are specifically transferred in writing. It is likely that the artist retained the copyrights but you will need to check this with the collector.


  1. Lesley says:

    Hi Kate, you need to approach the library and determine if they own copyright in the photos. Also determine when the photos were taken and whether they are yet in the public domain. If still protected by copyright, you may need to clear permission from the original photographer as well as the person who made the copies (if there is in fact copyright in the photos.) Lots of complicated answers!

  2. Lesley says:

    Hi ClareM, why don’t you contact one the Copyright Licensing Agency in the UK to see what they advise you.

  3. Lesley says:

    John, assume that all online content is protected by copyright unless you know otherwise. Even copies of public domain works may have a new copyright in them if they fit the general criteria of copyright protection.

  4. Kate says:

    Hi Lesley–

    The nonprofit museum wants to build a website that shows what life was like for those who helped build the University and to document slaves’ contributions to the University. I’ve gathered copies of photos of slaves building the University’s walls (from a collection at the campus library). Is it possible that the library has a copyright on the collection? And because the photos are copies, should I be concerned about contacting original copyright owners of the photos themselves?

  5. clareM says:

    I have inherited a collection of old magazines and newspapers from the 40’s / 50’s, and wish to reproduce some of the amazing adverts (whether in part or in full) of this era from the publications ….. !
    Some of the publications are still in existence and some of the products advertised – BUT not all , will I need to seek permission with them being of such an age – and from whom do I seek it ?
    NB: these are all UK advertisements

  6. John Hall says:

    Hi Lesley:

    I am working on a video documentary that will include 19th century photographs. A historical society has lower resolution photos on their website that can be downloaded (I do not think it was their intent). Higher resolution copies can be purchased from the society but restrictions in their usage and display must be granted for an additional fee. Am I able to use the lower resolution images without society permission?

  7. Lesley says:

    Hi Dr Tinsley – I’m afraid this specific UK law question is beyond my knowledge – something I too would have to research under UK law. Perhaps you could ask one of the author’s associations in the UK.

  8. Dr R N. Tinsley says:

    Dear Madam,

    Here’s my query. The owner of a letter written in 1922 wishes to display it in his local museum in the UK. The museum owner has been told that he cannot do so as this would constitute “visual presentation” to which the copyright holder has the rights under the 1988 Act. Is this so?

    Best wishes

    Dr. R.N.Tinsley

  9. Lesley says:

    Hi Miki, your question is not a copyright issue. This relates to privacy and personality rights of people. Please research that area of the law to find your answer.

  10. Miki says:

    Hi Lesley,

    Miki again. I wanted to add something to the above post. Many of the human subject images in this photo collection are of public events: parades, pageants, 4-H shows, community awards, business openings. These include crowd/audience shots. There are other photos of activities in public, but not necessarily “public events”: construction workers, shop employees, recreation (children at beaches and parks). Thank you again.

  11. Miki says:

    Hi Lesley,
    I work in a small museum archives and we acquired a large collection of photographs (single creator/photographer). We hope to exhibit some of these images and to also publish an exhibit catalog. The time period covers 1950 through the early 1970s. Many of the photos have human subjects, none of which have accompanying model release forms. Although some human subjects are looking at the camera, none of the photos are portraits. Also, none of the photos have accompanying descriptions, so we don’t know who these people are. Can we exhibit photos with human subjects without release forms? Is there a statue of limitation regarding public display and photos of a certain age? Thank you for your help.

  12. Lesley says:

    Hi James, either the museum is charging you to access its photo, or the museum is claiming copyright in its photo. In either case, if you take your own photo of the older photo (assuming it is in the public domain – age alone of the photo does not determine this), then you can print it without question.

  13. James says:

    I have a contemporary print of a photo that is more than 100 years old. The original is owned by a local museum. Does the museum have a right to charge me for using my print in a book?

  14. Lesley says:

    Generally, an artist would own the copyright in her own works. However, you would have to check with the museum to determine this. For your use, you may want to apply the fair use factors and determine whether you do require permission to use the photograph.

  15. Jennifer says:

    I took a photograph of an installation at a temporary museum exhibition installed in Mexico City that I would like to use for a flyer to announce an upcoming talk that I am giving at a U.S. university (educational purpose). Is the photograph under copyright protection by the museum or the artist, or can I use it for this limited, non-commercial purpose?

  16. Lesley says:

    Hi Chris, you need to assume that the photos are protected by copyright unless you have a reason to believe otherwise. You need to investigate the copyright owner of each photograph (which may not be easy) before scanning etc or otherwise reproducing the photos.

  17. Chris p says:

    I have some aviation photographs from 1957 which are stamped ‘ de havilland ‘ on the reverse.
    What copyright are they subject to please?
    Can i scan them for instance and put them on the photo share website FLICKR?

  18. Lesley says:

    Hi Francesco, there may be some exception for that use in your own country’s copyright laws, however most uses are protected by copyright and would require permission, even if you cannot locate the copyright owner. Some countries (such as Canada) has a process for obtaining a licence for the use of works of unlocatable copyright owners.

  19. Francesco says:

    Hi Lesley,
    I’m imployed in a company which designs and realize interactive exhibits for museum. Part of my job is collecting materials (buy rights, ask for permission): I found some maps in a publicated paper I need to use for a slideshow, but despite my efforts I’m unable to ask permission/license to the author.
    Using those maps (illustration of scientific research results) would be copyright infringments?


  20. Kenny says:

    I recently visited a museum located in the US that exibits trains and automobiles. The museum allows photography and has posted signs at the entrance stating photography is allowed but has no mention in writing, posting, or other signage in the museum or currently on their website that those photographs can be sold. If these photos of trains or cars are sold, would this be a copyright violation?

  21. Doug says:

    We are preparing a museum exhibition of old toys and want to exhibit actual toys loaned from collectors as well as scan the advertisements that marketed these toys to create large wall (print) displays. Some of the ads were created after 1923. As we will charge admission to the exhibition do we need to seek out permission from the manufacturers to display the actual toy collections and the creators of the ads to scan and print the wall art?
    Follow-up, what if the ad agency or toy manufacturer is no longer in business and no record of the businesses being acquired can be found?

  22. Wayne says:

    An individual with permission photographed records of items produced by a company and the records are now in the company museum. He published a book of these photos.He later sent a copy of the photos to his museum contact. That contact sold the photos on eBay with no restriction. Does the eBay purchaser have the right to post the records on a non-profit website for everyone to see. Since the photographer gave the photos to someone without restrictions does the eBay purchaser have the right to publish the photos?

  23. Mary says:

    With regard to private photos of individuals or family portrait photos that have been given to the museum, I understand that the person who originally took the photo or commissioned the photo is the copyright owner. Am I correct? As a museum volunteer if I use a photo on the museum website do I need to contact the copyright owner for permission. In what cases do we not need to seek permission. How old should the photo be before it is considered in the public domain?

  24. John says:


    I donated my model railroad to a local non-profit town museum and am continuing to develop it. Since it is a period piece (1930s), I would love to use some of the numerous available online images from that period for miniature posters, billboards, etc. Unless an image specifically states it must be purchased when you click on it are they OK to use?

  25. Lesley says:

    Michael, like many copyright answers, that is not a straightforward answer. Does the original work have copyright protection in it or has it expired? Are you copying the original work? Are the two works substantially similar? Reproduction can occur in various formats and copyright laws do not define the format/media of reproduction, just that the copyright owner has the sole and exclusive right to reproduce a work. In addition, whether or not the work still has copyright protection, the author may have moral rights in it.

  26. michael says:


    If I create a sculptural reproduction of an ancient artifact, can the owner of that artifact (whether another museum or a private party) have any copyright or other intellectual property rights that they may enforce against me? For example, lets say that I view an Inuit totem and then go back to my shop and carve my own. Mine looks exactly (or very nearly exactly) like the original, but it is not a cast produced from a mold of the original. It is my hand-made sculptural replica of the original. Have I broken any laws? Thanks for your help.

  27. Lesley says:

    Hi Bikim, the right of public performance applies in all settings, however some copyright laws have specific exceptions in specified circumstances for certain groups such as libraries, archives and museums. You will need to review the exceptions relevant in your country.

  28. Bikim says:

    Hi Lesley,

    Thank you for your quick response. I have another question: would “public performance” be exempt in a museum setting because we’re “nonprofit and educational in nature?” Although this exemption was probably made with schools in mind, do you think it could apply to museums?

    Thanks again for all your help.

  29. Lesley says:

    Hi Bikim, one of the rights of a copyright holder is the right of public performance. So if copyright still exists in a film and you do not have a license or assignment to use the film, you may neither reproduce the film or perform it in public. Public performance generally refers performing the work outside of a domestic circle.

  30. Bikim says:

    Hello Lesley,

    I work in a museum archives. In our collection we’ve just received digitized versions of 8mm and 16mm film reels that have never been publically screened. Two seem to have copyrights, but the others are home movies.

    Those two with copyrights are from 1960. Now, we have the use rights, but not the copyright, correct? With just the use rights for all our films, can we display/screen them in an exhibit? But we just can’t reproduce the copyright films for commercial use, is this correct?

    Thank you.

  31. Lesley says:

    Although works are in the public domain, a museum may limit the right to access and reproduce artifacts on its premises. You would have to check with the policy of the museum while photographing artifacts in the museum.

  32. Sara says:

    Hi Lesley,

    I understand that if I take a picture of an ancient artifact in a museum, I am not in violation of copyright, because the item is in the public domain. Does the owner have any right to limit photographs? Do I need to check with the museum before I post the photos?


  33. Lesley says:

    Hi David, you need permission from the owner (photographer or other person) of the photographs to include in your exhibit. You may also want to enquire into any privacy or publicity rights of the musicians in the photos prior to using them.

  34. David says:

    We are developing a museum exhibit and are reproducing photographs of musicians to go with the text on the interpretive panels. Is this a copyright infringement issue? Do we need permission?

  35. Lesley says:

    Hi Krichardson, once a work is in the public domain, there is not right against reproducing the work (this is an economic and not a moral right.) However, by virtue of ownership of the physical work, you can limit access to it, and contract with people who access it to only be able to use it in certain manners (i.e., not reproduce it.)

  36. K. says:

    Hi Lesley, My archival facility has several donated photographs that are in public domain. Do we have the right to limit reproduction of these photographs? Does that fall under moral rights (14.1) or integrity?
    Can archivists legally limit the use of an image in public domain when the image becomes “legally” ours upon donation?

  37. Lesley says:

    Hi Dennis, from the copyright perspective, there is only an issue if you reproduce the characters themselves. Sounds like you are describing the characters. In terms of the trademarks on the characters – you want to ensure that there is no confusion between your use of them and the owners of the marks. Sounds like more of a trademark issue than copyright.

  38. In a children’s book, am I permitted to compare a living, inspirational person (a kidney transplant recipient) to positive qualities of cartoon characters like Disney’s rabbit, Thumper and Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny, in very,very positive terms, without approval from Disney, Energizer Corp., and other copyright holders, without their written approval?

  39. Lesley says:

    Hi Diane, a copyright holder has the right to remain anonymous. Also, when the copyright holder donates his work, he can ask the institution by contract to keep his name anonymous.

  40. Diane says:

    Can you think of any instances where a librarian, archivist or museum worker might not provide the name of a copyright holder and contact information when asked for it? I understand they are not under an obligation to provide that information but I wonder why they would not. Can a copyright holder request anonymity?

  41. Lesley says:

    Hi Melinda, you may reproduce and adapt any works that are in the public domain. Generally, the law will give you protection in the “new” work you create upon creation of it. It’s always helpful to include a copyright symbol on your new work, and possibly to register it with your national copyright office (though this is generally voluntary.)

  42. Melinda says:

    If there is an 18th Century drawing (clearly in the public domain) that a museum would like to reproduce, in prints or posters, etc. would it be able to copyright these reproductions? How can a museum protect its work?
    (in this case, the museum does not own the drawing, but is obtaining a license agreement from the owner, if that matters).

  43. Lesley says:

    Hi Helen, “noncommercial” can mean different things in different context. In essence, you would have to get a definition of the word from Louvre since they are giving you permission. I will note that generally inserting content into a book that is for sale, that would be considered a commercial use.

  44. Helen says:

    Dear Lesley
    I am writing from a non-profit organization engages in producing Bible study videos. In the website of Louvre Museum, there is a statement: “Still and video photography is permitted for private, noncommercial use only in the galleries housing the permanent collection.” I wrote to Louvre and asked if we are qualified under this category. The reply is: “The Museum of Louvre, Paris, authorizes conditional reproductions of all pieces within it’s collection”. If we insert the DVD in a book as complimentary, the book has no artifact photos from Louvre, but the book is for sale. Will it violate the “noncommercial” term? Thank you for your kind attention and look forward to hearing from you soon.
    Best regards,

  45. Lesley says:

    Hi M. Arbour, first, you want to always ensure that you are using the original photographs and that they are truly in the public domain. Assuming you arrange the photos in some manner or ensure proper lighting or undertake other acts when digitizing the photographs, it is likely that you have protection in the digitized version. Generally, you have to meet the criteria in the Canadian Copyright Act that the digitized versions are original.

  46. M. Arbour says:

    Hi Lesley,

    In our Archives, we have several photographic print copies of photographs that now reside in the public domain (published Canadian Crown works that are over 50 yrs. old). If we make digital copies of those photographs, can we then claim copyright on our “digital versions”?



  47. Lesley says:

    Hi Stephanie, in many countries a design applied to a useful article is protected by another area of intellectual property called industrial design. You may want to investigate the industrial design laws in your country.

  48. Stephanie Allen says:

    It is my understanding that “useful articles” are not covered by copyright. How are “useful articles” defined? I would think that a coutre dress made by a fashion designer would qualify as both “useful” and artistic. We also acquire hand-crafted objects such as baskets and quill-work which are both useful and artistic. Is this a grey area or is there an answer?

  49. says:

    Dear Birdwatcher, to quote from the US Copyright Office:
    Under the 1909 copyright law, works copyrighted in the United States before January 1, 1978, were subject to a renewal system in which the term of copyright was divided into two consecutive terms. Renewal registration, within strict time limits, was required as a condition of securing the second term and extending the copyright to its maximum length.

    On January 1, 1978, the current copyright law (title 17 of the United States Code) came into effect in the United States. This law retained the renewal system for works that were copyrighted before 1978 and were still in their first terms on January 1, 1978. For these works the statute provides for a first term of copyright protection lasting for 28 years, with the possibility for a second term of 47 years. The 1992 amending legislation automatically secures this second term for works copyrighted between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977.
    Further info at:

  50. Birdwatcher says:

    I own some important paintings of my late father-in-law. In 1996 the
    copyright on his work expired 50 years after his death. His only
    child, my husband, died in 2000 and had not applied for an extension of the copyright. Is it possible for me to apply for an extension & apply for a copyright on the paintings I own?

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