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Identifying copyright in collection items

This page shares the steps you need to go through to determine if, and which, rights exist in your collection items. 

When submitting data to Europeana, you have to assign digital objects a rights statement. To do this, you must have clarity on the copyright status of both the content (the physical or born-digital object) and the digital object, meaning the digital reproduction of the work, because the rights statement will have to reflect both, at once. Be aware that having an item in your collections does not mean owning its copyright.

The information below highlights some of the questions you need to ask when identifying the copyright status of an item in your collections. Please note that many of the answers will vary from one country to the other.

How do you find out whether the item is protected by copyright?

Was the content ever protected by copyright? 

If it is not original, or the author’s own intellectual creation, it is probably not protected by copyright. 

Is the work in the public domain? 

The general rule in European Union Member States is that a work enters the public domain 70 years after the death of the author, effectively starting on the 1st January of the following year. However, there are exceptions to this rule which make the calculation quite complex, and varies from one country to another. When calculating whether a work is in the public domain, you should also consider whether there are works inside the work whose copyright protection might expire at a later stage.  

Are there neighbouring rights on the content? 

Neighbouring rights are a ‘weaker’ type of copyright protection obtained not because something is original, but due to some other type of investment or effort. In addition to the copyright of the work, you should consider rights that performers or film producers have.

The content is in copyright and you want to use it. How do you get permission?

Can you rely on an exception to copyright

Most copyright laws have exceptions or limitations to copyright that authorise some activities without the need to ask the rightsholder for permission. This is the case of the preservation exception, or the orphan works exception.

Do you hold the rights?

Check whether the rightsholder agreed to transfer the rights to your institution when the item was acquired.

If not, do you know who the rights holder is? 

It is possible that the author transferred the (economic) rights to someone else. For instance, the author of the book to a publisher, or the author of the song to a record company. This is the person/institution that you should ask for permission to use the content.

In a few countries, collecting societies (organisations that collect copyright royalties on behalf of authors) can give licenses to cultural heritage institutions to make collections available online, even if the author is not known or not in the collecting society’s repertoire.

What if you cannot identify or locate the rightsholder?

Consider relying on the orphan works exception in your country. After conducting a diligent search with no success, among other conditions, you will be able to make it available online (although not allow its use).

Beyond copyright: are there other restrictions to consider?

When digitising the object, your institution may have agreed (maybe with the company that digitised the item or the person who photographed it) that you would limit the publication or reuse of the digital reproduction. There might also be privacy concerns, and the dissemination of the item could have a negative impact on a community. These are all things beyond copyright that are worth considering before making an item available online, or allowing its use any further. 

Can you, and do you want to claim rights on the digitisation of the item?

Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland grant  neighbouring rights to non-original photographs. The conditions differ from country to country.

Some cultural heritage institutions claim this protection on the digital reproductions they make of their collection items. Europeana highly discourages this practice, particularly on content that is in the public domain, as indicated in our Public Domain Charter

Also, note that the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive has a provision (article 14) that changes certain possibilities to claim rights over digital reproductions of works of visual arts in the public domain.

After you have clarity on clearing the rights on the content and on the digital reproduction, we recommend that you read our tips to select a rights statement