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Fair Use Question of the Month: Exhibiting Activist Letters

Image by Jim Yardly, Civil Rights, Demonstrations, "March to Freedom," Detroit, 1963Dear CMSI,

I work at a community library and we are planning an exhibit on civil rights demonstrations in the area during the 60s. I found some letters from an activist during that time stashed away in our archives. I think the letters would really add to the exhibit, but I’m worried about copyright and the only information I have about the writer is his first name. Is it okay to put the letters on display?


Dear Angela,

Thank you for your question. It sounds like the letters you described fall into the category of orphan works, or works which are difficult or impossible to associate with active rightsholders who might give permission for their use. The Center recently released the Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use of Orphan Works for Libraries & Archives to help people make decisions about situations like yours.

Your question has to do with the second best practice principle described in the Statement, which concerns public access. Fair use does support the facilitation of public access to orphan works, but some additional best practices must be considered. Depending on the nature of the letters you’ve discovered, you may need to consider Principles 3, 4 and 6.

Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use of Orphan Works for Libraries & ArchivesPrinciples 3 and 4 can help you decide whether to include the letters and, if so, how much to include. As a writer of letters from the 60s could easily be alive today, Principle 3 asks whether the letters contain any information about the writer that, were it made public, could be seen as a violation of the writer’s privacy. If so, you might consider finding a way to selectively exclude those aspects of the letters. Principle 4 asks if the letters will add substantial value to the collection. Do they add new perspectives or knowledge that would be unavailable otherwise?

If you do decide that you have a case for fair use, you should consider Principle 6. Principle 6 suggests that you make it clear to library patrons where the letters come from and why you chose to include the letters in the exhibit. You might also create a method for feedback and discussion regarding the exhibit.

If you reach a decision based on careful consideration of each of these issues, you can be confident that your actions accord with the best practices of the community of memory institution professionals.

Best of luck,