A publicly-funded archive in England provides a service to allow members of the public to copy, with a copier on site and for a nominal fee, documents. The documents are very old, so that any person involved in their creation died long ago, and their copyright would normally have expired. The archive stamps the new copied document "Copyright retained by owner of original document", with the implication that the original document is on loan to the archive and this stamp is a requirement of the loan conditions.

Creation of the new paper copy by pressing a button on the copier involves no significant creative input. How can either the archive, or the original document owner, claim any copyright, either on the original document or the new paper copy?

  • Odd. The owner of a document doesn't generally possess copyright to that document (for example, consider the purchase of a book or periodical). I wonder if they meant to write that copyright is retained by the owner of the copyright in the original document (since that party also has copyright in derived works, including photocopies). The owner of copyright in a public domain work could be proverbially "left as an exercise for the reader."
    – phoog
    Jul 3, 2017 at 16:14
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    This may be a generic notice if they also copy items where the copyright is still viable, and it's a nuisance for them to make a determination which things are now out of copyright.
    – user6726
    Jul 3, 2017 at 17:03
  • Beware that UK law has en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweat_of_the_brow doctrine, and copies or scans of public domain documents may have copyright, which would belong to the archive that produced it.
    – Pere
    Sep 2, 2021 at 13:20

1 Answer 1


You are reading more into this than it says:

Copyright retained by owner of original document

This simply, means that by giving you a copy they are not transferring ownership of the copyright. That is, if copyright exists, then you don't get it and neither do they claim ownership of it: it stays with whoever owns the copyright.

If copyright has expired then the stamp has no meaning at all. Also, you say "The documents are very old, so that any person involved in their creation died long ago, and their copyright would normally have expired." - be careful, copyright lasts a long time after death - 70 years in the UK. If the person was alive in 1947 the copyright is still in force.

  • You may well be right, although such behaviour by a serious archive dismays me. It seems to at least cheapen the notion of copyright. Why doesn't claiming copyright on something when there is no right count as fraud? Anyway, thanks. BTW, it's a legal document from 1865, and all involved died before 1900.
    – emrys57
    Jul 4, 2017 at 12:50
  • Someone who was 21 in 1865 would have been born in 1844, and would "only" have had to live to 103 for any copyright they had to still exist. 103 in 1947 is very old indeed, but it is not out of the question. Jul 4, 2017 at 14:51
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    Further, note that the copyright of the legal document would probably belong to the solicitor who drew it up - not the signatories. (I don't know - there may be special rules for legal documents.) Jul 4, 2017 at 14:51

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