Getting started with rights

Before diving into a new project or publication, understand what qualifies for copyright, how to decide if it is protected, and what to do next.

Where? It matters.

While treaties have ensured greater consistency across the copyright laws of most countries, there is no “international copyright.” This adds complexity in a digital environment, but we can make a good faith effort to expand access across borders while remaining within the law.

Where will the material be used or accessed?

Did you know the same work can be protected by copyright in one country but not in another? When deciding whether or not to scan, share, or republish material, consider where you are, where you will put the material, and where your primary audience is located. Even if a book or postcard was published in another country, you should still first refer to laws in locations where copying or sharing is taking place.

For example

Poet Una Marson’s (1905-1965) The Moth and the Star, self-published in 1937, remains in copyright in the writer’s home country of Jamaica until Jan. 1, 2061, 95 years after her death. But it is already in the public domain in countries like Barbados where copyright extends for 50 years after the life of the author.

Who owns the copyright?

It’s easy to assume that if a library or archive owns a physical collection, they must also own the copyright. But unless the creator of the work or their heirs transferred the copyright to the collecting institution or the archive controls rights to government works, this might not be the case. Some institutions also require researchers to agree to certain contractual terms and conditions to access materials.

What is protected?

Across most countries, works with a minimal amount of creativity qualify for automatic protection once they are “fixed.” For instance, ideas or spoken remarks are usually not protected, but drawings, recorded interviews, email, and other tangible materials are.

What to consider

It can be tough to keep track of small variations in copyright laws throughout the Caribbean. But even when the details differ, there are a few areas to look for across the board.


Term of Protection

In most places, works (no matter where they were created or published) are protected for 50-70 years beyond the life of the creator. This term varies for some formats such as photos or sound recordings. In some cases, including Jamaica and the U.S., today’s rules are not retroactive, and it’s necessary to understand how older rules apply to older material.


Public Domain

Materials that are not protected by copyright are in the “public domain,” meaning they can legally be copied and shared without permission. Generally, it’s safe to assume materials created through the mid-19th century are out of copyright. In the US, works created by the federal government are in the public domain.


Protection Exceptions

Be aware of exceptions to copyright owners’ rights that might support your intended use. Most copyright laws specify exceptions for educational uses and for libraries and archives. Many also include a more flexible exception, “fair dealing,” “fair use,” or “fair practice,” that supports criticism and scholarship.