Let's say that you donate old photographs to a historical society without any written instructions. Does the historical society know what it can do with those items? The answer is "no." In fact, the historical society may not even know -- for sure -- if it owns the items you have donated or if you retained ownership.
According to the Society of American Archives, "The deed of gift is a formal, legal, agreement that transfers ownership of, and legal rights in, the materials to be donated." A deed of gift form not only transfers ownership of the items, but also transfers the copyright (if applicable), and states what the new owner can and cannot do with the items. For example, if the historical society decides not to retain the items, can it sell them or throw them out? Or perhaps the items must be returned to the original owner (or that person's decendents)?
When one considers digitizing items from an archives, not only is copyright important on original works of authorship, but ownership and the rights of the owner are important. For example, if you were to digitize a letter, one would need to know if the letter was still covered by copyright or not. In addition, you would need to know if you had been granted the right make a copy of the letter (digitize) and publicly display the letter (which occurs when you display digitized items on the Internet). Those ideas would be covered in the deed of gift.
With changes in technology, deed of gift forms have become more comprehensive, learning from the mistakes of the past. Some institutions post their deed of gift forms online, which can be helpful in understand what should be included and how it might be worded. Examples can be viewed at:
4/3/2009: All of the links above no longer work. The Navarro College form was quite nice, so I'm sad to see that one disappear. Here are is one that is a decent model:
Please note that each example is different and has its pluses and minuses. Each works for that institution and its current situation. We hope that they will cover future situations by transferring all rights to the archive or library (donee).