Copyright and Permissions (Research Assistants)

Permission relates to the physical image of the item. Copyright refers to the ownership of the content of the item. We often will need to secure both, sometimes from different sources.

There should be Basecamp items for clearing permissions for the archives and for clearing copyright for individuals.


There are two kinds of repositories when it comes to seeking permission: ones that have materials already filmed in the JAPM and those that do not. If we already have some of their materials, you need to use the permission letter-JAPM, which discusses the older project's microfilm. If the archive is new to us, then use the permission letter-JAPA which just talks about the digital edition.

If the items are unpublished and were located in an archive, we will seek the permission of the archive to publish the documents, both in our digital edition and potentially in the Selected Papers. Note that we do not need to get permission from an archive for a published work that appears in many archives—we need copyright for those.

  • Look at the archives website to see whether there are policy guidelines or instructions for securing permission to publish.
  • Check the digital edition to figure out which letter you should use. You might end up creating a mash-up of both, if the archive both had materials in the JAPM and has new collections with materials. Make sure that we only have to send one letter to cover all the collections.
  • Enter the info in the Repository_permissions spreadsheet in the DropBox folder. If you have permission, the cleared status is "yes" if you have not cleared it yet, but it has not been denied, it is "pending" and if it has been denied, it is "no".
  • Email or mail the archive using the base letter. Have Cathy look them over before you send until you get the hang of it. Once they respond, update the Basecamp item and the spreadsheet.



Copyright law protects the authors of materials from having their work used without their permission. The basic rule of thumb for unpublished materials like correspondence, is that copyright expires 70 years after the author's death (1945 deaths). If you cannot locate the author's death, or if the author is a company, rather than a person, it expires 120 years after the document was created (anything written before 1895). For more details see SAA Guide on copyright in unpublished materials.

For published materials, look for a copyright notice. Sometimes, particularly with journals and newspapers, the authors do not have rights to their articles, the publisher of the journal does. Anything published before 1923 is in public domain, but there are complications with materials published after that.

As we process documents, we need to start compiling a list of copyright research that needs to be done and doing it. We cannot publish documents without trying to secure copyright permission.


Check the copyright status spreadsheet in the Dropbox directory to see whether the author is already listed. If so, you do not have to add them again.

  1. If they are not included, add them to the list. Research assistants will be assigned to conduct the research. See if you can locate a death date (do not spend more than 5 minutes) for the individual and add it to the spreadsheet.
  2. Did the person die before 1945? If so, they are in the public domain and you can add that as the Copyright holder, and make the Cleared? field "yes". Add your name to the end of the row and you are done.
  3. If the person died after 1945, put the year in and indicate that the Copyright holder is "Unknown" and that the Cleared? field is Pending.

Conducting copyright research

If you are assigned to research some of the individuals on the spreadsheet, add your name to the rows, if they are not already there. There are many ways to try to secure copyright permission. Try the most likely ones first and then the more convoluted ones.

If the person's papers have been preserved in an archive, the archive may have information about the copyright holder. Your first stop is to look at the finding aid, if there is one. These often list copyright information. Sometimes the archive holds the copyright (though usually only to the materials written by that author in their collections), and other times they know who donated the papers (often a relative) and can at least provide you with a name and possibly contact information.
WATCH Copyright database
There are a few copyright databases that you can consult. These usually document authors of published works, and more famous individuals, but you can try. WATCH records copyright for writers and artists.
For less famous people, copyright is held by literary heirs after death, usually a spouse or children, or grandchildren. While it may be difficult to locate them, it is often not. Look for obituaries to find the names of children and spouses. Search the databases, the Social Security Death Index, and newspaper databases to determine whether this person is also deceased. Try graveyard sites like Find-A-Grave and BillionGraves to locate names to search for. If you think the heir is alive, try the and basic Google searches to try to narrow the field. If you can locate an address or phone number, you can contact them.
If the person published books, their publishers may have information on who gets royalties, or who they need to contact in order to reprint the book. It can be difficult to get through to the right office, but most of the websites have a link to a permissions office that grants others permission to use materials out of their books, and that would be a starting point.

As you go through these steps, comment on the Basecamp item so that we know where the process is. Once you have exhausted all leads, alert Cathy and she will decide whether to continue pursuing the holder, or determine that we have made a good faith effort to find them. We will list names of individuals that we are trying to find rightsholders for on the project website, so that if they are searching, they may find us.

Entering Info

For documents, enter status in Rights.
For people and organizations, enter in Rightsholder

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