Copyright for UNC Library Digital Collections

About Copyright and UNC Library Digital Collections

The UNC Library digitizes and publishes online selected materials from its collections so that they can be discovered and used. In order to facilitate the re-use of our digital collections in personal, scholarly, and commercial projects, the library is making an effort to assign simple and clear rights statements to most items in its digital collections. These statements describe the copyright status, under current U.S. law, as far as it is known by the UNC Library.

While the library can provide guidance on copyright for materials in its collections, it is ultimately the responsibility of the user to make the final determination about the legality of re-using materials from the library collections. If you have questions about library policies in general or about the copyright status of a specific item, please contact the Wilson Library Research & Instructional Services department:

Rights Statements

The following statements are assigned to items in the UNC Library digital collections. For more information on these statements, please see the longer definitions below.

Public Domain: The work is not in copyright in the U.S. because the copyright has expired or because copyright is not applicable.

No Known U.S. Rights Restrictions: As far as the Library has been able to determine, there is no copyright in force for the work in the U.S..

Copyright Status Unknown: The Library has not been able to determine whether the work is in copyright.

In Copyright / Permission Required: The work is in copyright in the U.S. and use beyond the scope of copyright law requires permission from the rights holder.

Attribution and Notification

It is not necessary to ask the library for permission before using an item from our collections, except in those few cases where the library holds the copyright for the collection. However, we are very interested in learning when and how items from our collections are used. If you are planning to cite and/or reproduce materials from Wilson Library collections in an article, book, exhibit, website, documentary, or other format, please let us know at

Longer Definitions of Copyright Statements Used in Digital Collections

Public Domain
Public domain works include works that are not in copyright because the copyright has expired, because the rights holder does not claim copyright, or because the work cannot be copyrighted.

For a useful chart delineating when copyright expires and work enters the public domain in the U.S., see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Many, but not all U.S. government works are in the public domain. Different laws are in effect for the works of other countries’ governments. U.S. state governments’ positions on copyright of their works vary.

The U.S. Copyright Office has defined the following as not eligible for copyright protection:

works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)
titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents
ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)

–Copyright Basics, The U.S. Copyright Office

No Known U.S. Rights Restrictions
We use this designation when we have not been able to find definitive evidence that the work is in copyright, but we are not completely sure that the work is in the public domain.

In many cases, there may be some uncertainty about one or more of the following:

  • the author of the work
  • the title of the work
  • the date the work was created
  • if the author is living
  • when the author died
  • whether the work was published
  • when the work was published
  • where the work was published
  • whether the copyright was registered or renewed

For more information see How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work from the U.S. Copyright Office.

In Copyright / Permission Required

The material is in copyright in the U.S.. The UNC Library does not hold the copyrights for much of the material that is in our physical possession.

Someone who wants to reproduce the material, distribute it, or make any of the other uses associated with copyright must get permission from the rights holder if that use exceeds the limits defined in a copyright exception. Note that under the current law, creative work that is eligible for copyright protection receives that protection as soon as it is fixed in a tangible form of expression. Because registration and notice of copyright are no longer required, it can sometimes be difficult to identify the rights holder.

The rights holder’s exclusive rights are the rights of:

  • reproduction
  • preparing derivative work
  • distribution
  • public performance
  • public display
  • public performance by means of a digital audio transmission

Under U.S. law, in certain circumstances, creators of works of visual art have moral rights as well.

Sections 107-122 of the Copyright Act contain exceptions to the rights holder’s exclusive rights, including the fair use exception. UNC Library staff can provide information about fair use and other copyright exceptions, but you are ultimately responsible for assessing whether your use falls within one of the exceptions.

Similarly, Library staff can advise users on seeking permission, but that process is ultimately your responsibility as well. Some useful resources on seeking permission include: