Copyright and Reuse

How do I determine if a work in the BHL is in the public domain?

For the United States, the publication must be published prior to 1924. Works that may be in the public domain under United States law may not be in the public domain under the laws of other countries. You will have to research your country’s laws in this matter. The BHL cannot and will not advise you or any other party about interpretation of your country’s copyright laws. Generally speaking, the country where you plan to use the image and the nature of the use dictate what you can/cannot do as well as the level of risk involved. Please review the copyright law for the country in which you plan to use the content. BHL recommends consulting for further information. You may also contact the “Contributor” to verify the status of the specific book or volume.

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Understanding Copyright Status

Copyright Status How it’s described What it means License Can I reuse it?
Public domain
  • “Not specified”
  • Blank
  • Other
    • The publications was published before 1923
  • It is a United States government work
  • Not Applicable
  • Yes
No known copyright
  • “No known copyright restrictions as determined by scanning institution.”
    • The copyright has expired
  • The copyright may have existed at one point but was not renewed
  • There is no marking or indication of copyright on the material
  • A sufficient and diligent search has been performed to determine that the copyright holder(s) cannot be located or identified
  • Not Applicable
  • Yes
In copyright
  • “In copyright. Digitized with the permission of the rights holder.”
    • The publication is published by a BHL consortium member and digitized with permission
  • Permission obtained from rights holders to make content available in the BHL collection. See our Permissions page for more details
  • Yes, but NOT for commercial purposes

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How do I determine if a work in the BHL is in copyright?

If a work in the BHL is published in 1924 or after, the work may be in copyright. You can tell if a work in the BHL is in copyright by looking at the item metadata, i.e. the data used to describe the attributes of a book or volume in BHL. Start by going to a title in the BHL. At the top of the list of volumes (“items”) on the right-hand side, click on the “–” or “+” sign to minimize/expand the volume details:

copyright status
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Can I use your files?

Yes, please! If the files are from a work in the public domain you are free to reuse it including commercial reuse. Please see the above sections to learn more about how to determine the copyright status of a title in BHL.

Generally speaking, the country where you plan to use the image and the nature of the use dictate what you can/cannot do as well as the level of risk involved. Please review the copyright law for the country in which you plan to use the content. BHL recommends consulting for further information.

We appreciate attribution to the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the library that supplied the texts for digitization. This makes it possible for other researchers find our resources, and helps us to understand and demonstrate the impact of our digital collections. To attribute use, please use the following format:

    • “Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Contributed by [Holding Institution]. |”

In the case of space limitations, we recommend omitting the url. You can find the information about the “Holding Institution” by looking at the item metadata as described above. Example attribution statement: for an item in BHL scanned by Smithsonian Libraries, the preferred format is: “Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries. |”

If the files are from a copyrighted work for which we have obtained permission, then all of the files on are free for non-commercial use, as long as you abide by the terms set down in the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 license (CC BY-NC-SA license).

For information about how to download content please see Download Help. BHL allows you to download whole books, specific articles, or individual pages in various resolutions.

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What does the Creative Commons (CC) license allow me to do?

Here’s a summary of the license rules:

  • No commercial use – you cannot use images in the BHL collection to make money, or for any commercial endeavor, without prior approval. Please feel free to use the images for your presentations, academic materials, non-profit publications, or non-profit web sites. If you want to include the images on your commercial web site, please read the commercial licensing provisions below.
  • Provide attribution – we prefer “Image courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library.“.

For more information, see Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

This license applies only to content stored within the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It does not apply to image files at other sites that are linked from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

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What about commercial licensing?

You must contact the copyright holders for any commercial use. The BHL will not and cannot give or withhold permission for commercial use of any work in the BHL derived from a work under copyright. Using the metadata supplied with each volume, please determine the copyright holder or the institution that contributed the work and contact them directly. Please see the BHL Consortium Membership page for more information about contributors. The BHL will not act as “middle-man” in this communication.

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What kinds of files are available for reuse?

The Biodiversity Heritage Library contains digital versions of important works of biodiversity literature. These digital versions are made up of a series of files such as JPEG2000 image files, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) text files and XML metadata files.

For more information about what kinds of files are available for download and how to download our files, see:

  • Download Help for instructions on downloading and viewing files.
  • Data Exports for instructions on downloading BHL metadata files such as title and scientific name data files.
  • Developer Tools & APIs for instructions on using standard protocols to harvest BHL data such as OAI-PMH and APIs.

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Take-down Guidelines

The BHL makes every effort to provide content within its collection that is freely and openly available for access and responsible reuse either under the public domain or a Creative Commons license. In-copyright materials are in the BHL collection with the express permission of the copyright holder. In rare cases, content may be removed if it is found to be in violation of copyright. Should a copyright holder make the BHL aware of a potential infringement of copyright, the BHL will confirm the claim and remove the content from its database (including the <biodiversity> collection of the Internet Archive). Works ingested from the Internet Archive corpus that are digitized by libraries other than BHL consortium libraries are the responsibility of the contributing library and not the BHL.

For the United States, the copyright cut-off date is 1924, meaning that worked published prior to this date are in the public domain and are not restricted from access or reuse in the United States. Earlier dates may apply in some cases. If you are outside the U.S., you will need to review the copyright laws of the country where you plan to use the materials. Post-1923 content is available in BHL for one or more of the following reasons:

For more information about U.S. copyright, please consult Peter B. Hirtle’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, 1 January 2019. For any questions or concerns regarding the BHL collection and copyright, please contact Bianca Crowley, BHL Digital Collections Manager.

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BHL does not claim copyright

The Biodiversity Heritage Library does not hold any copyrights on any files. If the original works from which the digital versions were produced are in the public domain, so too are the digital files. As the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Institutions composing the BHL states, “All information currently in the public domain remains in the public domain. Neither the BHL nor the data providers will seek to assert any IPR over public domain materials.”

In addition to works in the public domain the BHL contains digital versions of some works still under copyright for which the BHL has obtained permission from the copyright holders. In these cases the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 license applies. Most of these works are journals published by non-profit learned societies or research institutions whose mission is involved with biodiversity.

As more materials are added to the Biodiversity Heritage Library our usage terms may evolve. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is committed to keeping public domain materials in the public domain.

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Is there any license applied to BHL’s data?

The BHL makes its metadata available for public use under the CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication license. This Creative Commons license allows you to reuse, modify, repurpose, and distribute the metadata for all purposes including commercial and non-commercial, with no need to ask for permission.

Metadata in this case, refers to:

  • Library catalog records, i.e. bibliographic data, used to describe the books and journals in the BHL collection (e.g. title and author data).
  • Page level data such as page numbers and pages types (e.g. “Title page” and “Illustration”).
  • Scientific name data, e.g. “Zea mays”. (For more information about how this data is generated, see our scientific names information).

Go ahead, take our metadata and do something creative with it! If you do repurpose BHL metadata please share your story with us. We often like to feature stories of reuse on our BHL blog.

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