The Library maintains a number of collections containing rare and unique materials. Often these collections contain a mix of published and unpublished material.

In order to facilitate access, copying and publishing, donors of rare and unique material are asked to complete a  rights agreement which sets out agreed conditions under which a library patron may, for example, make copies for research or study, or publish an extract in a book.  Library staff will refer first to these rights agreements when determining how you may use material in a particular collection.

The following is a summary of the most commonly requested information about copyright and rights in the Manuscripts Collection.


The owner of copyright for material in the Manuscripts Collection is the writer or creator of the material, or the creator's legal heir(s).  Note that the donor of the material is not always the copyright owner.  In addition, many collections contain a variety of letters, diaries, documents owned by multiple copyright owners.


As a general rule, all literary, dramatic and musical works, both published and unpublished, remain in copyright for the life of the creator plus 70 years.


Under Section 51(1) of the Copyright Act, libraries may photocopy unpublished manuscript material held in their collections if the material is required for research purposes, but only if the creator of the material has been dead for more than 50 years. For material which does not meet this criterion, researchers must first obtain the written permission of the relevant copyright holder(s).

Under Section 52 of the Copyright Act some old unpublished material held in library collections may be copied with a view to publication provided that:

  • the author has been dead for more than 50 years
  • the identity of the copyright owner is unknown
  • a notice is placed in the Commonwealth Government Notices Gazette 2 to 3 months prior to the publication of the work.

Official manuscripts, namely documents written by a person holding public office, are covered by Crown copyright and may be copied by the Library, providing access to the collection is open. Researchers wishing to publish such documents should seek the permission of the Australian Government Publishing Service.

The permission of the copyright holder(s) is not needed to photocopy a manuscript which was published as an article, nor to photocopy a reasonable portion of a manuscript which has been published as a book.


Should you wish to publish material from the Library's Manuscript Collection, you will need to declare your intention to the Library as custodian of the material. You will also need to obtain copyright clearance from the copyright holder(s). Please also provide an accompanying citation which acknowledges the National Library as custodian, and includes the name of the author and a collection number for the item.

Researchers are reminded that publication of more than a brief extract or reference from a manuscript item will still require the permission of the copyright holder(s), who may take legal action against a person who infringes copyright.