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The home page of Indiana University Libraries' guide to copyright law.

Unpublished Works

File boxes at the U.K. National Archives, Kew Gardens, London.  Photo by EduVolunteer from Wikimedia Commons, the Copyright Act of 1976 took effect in 1978, there was no protection under federal law for unpublished materials.  Federal copyright laws applied only to works which had been published.

The 1976 Act extended copyright protection to all new works from the moment they were created.  This table states the duration of copyrights under the 1976 Act for unpublished works created before 1978.

Type of Work Copyright Term
Unpublished Life of author + 70 years or 1/1/2003, whichever is greater
Unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works, and works made for hire (corporate authorship) 120 years from date of creation
Unpublished works created before 1978 that were published after 1977 but before 2003 Life of the author + 70 years or 31 December 2047, whichever is greater
Unpublished works created before 1978 that were published after 31 December 2002 Life of the author + 70 years
Unpublished works when the death date of the author is not known 120 years from date of creation


Unpublished materials are subject to the fair use doctrine, just as published works are.  A use that exceeds fair use would require obtaining permission from the owner of the copyright in the materials. 

Unpublished Works in Archives

Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.  Photo by Vmenkov, and archives holding manuscripts such as Indiana University Archives or the Lilly Library usually own just the physical items and not the copyrights to the words and images on those items.  The Lilly Library's statement about its ownership of copyrights is typical:

We must caution you that the Lilly Library does not own reproduction rights to the material in its collections, except in certain instances. Reproduction for publication purposes, therefore, is subject to your securing permission from persons, corporations, or other legal entities which may own or claim such rights under the copyright law. Under the law effective January 1, 1978, both published and unpublished works are protected by the copyright law. In addition to written works, the law also covers musical compositions, drama, pantomimes, choreography, pictures, graphics, sculpture, sound recordings, motion pictures, and other audiovisual creations. All responsibility for questions of copyright that may arise in the use made of copies of our material must be assumed by the applicant. All requests for permission to publish copyrighted material must be accompanied by a letter of permission from the copyright owner.

Sometimes collections will have detailed restrictions on their use as a result of the terms under which the archive aquired the material. For example, the Sylvia Plath collection at the Lilly Library has these restrictions:

According to the wishes of the copyright holder, copies of Plath manuscripts will be made only for "bona fide Plath scholars" and will be made only of poems, stories, or articles written for publication. No mass copying will be done, i.e. only selected items necessary for research will be copied. None of Plath's correspondence will be copied. Photographs, drawings and other art works will not be photocopied for readers. Photographic reproductions of art works may be made only with the permission of the Plath estate. Permission for publication must be secured from Faber and Faber, representatives of the Plath copyright holders.

Archives sometimes impose their own requirements on quotation and publication of materials as a condition of users' access to them.  This reflects an institution's own policies and is not necessarily part of copyright law.  These issues are particularly addressed in James Thorpe's The Use of Manuscripts in Literary Research.

The online database Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders is a guide run by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Reading to identify owners and contact information of copyright holders.  For example, it reveals that Sylvia Plath's copyrights are owned by her estate, which is represented by the London publisher of Faber & Faber

Further Reading