First World War Galleries, IWM London

Government drops plans to reduce copyright terms

Rebecca Atkinson, 10.02.2015
Move criticised as a missed opportunity to reform laws
The government has abandoned plans to introduce a new law that would have reduced the term of copyright for some unpublished works.

The 2039 rule means that some unpublished works are protected by copyright in the UK until 2039. In 2013, parliament approved reducing this term to bring it in line with published works, and launched a six-week consultation with the sector.

In a statement, the government said: “Although many respondents [to the consultation] were supportive of the government’s proposed measures, a number of respondents raised some concerns with the policy and its potential negative impact on owners of copyright works.

“The government recognises these concerns and as a result has decided not to take action in this area at this time, but will instead seek further views from affected parties.”

The decision to drop the plans has been criticised by the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance. Its chairwoman, Naomi Korn, said she was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.

“We have missed an important opportunity to reform complex copyright laws that restrict and distort how we tell and understand UK history, and undermines the value of copyright itself,” Korn added.
Annie Mauger, the former chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, said that the UK is the only country in Europe that still has “restrictive” copyright rules on unpublished work: “It is still complex, difficult and costly for our libraries, museums and archives to make unpublished materials of historical and cultural interest available to the public.”

The government has also published a report summarising responses to its consultation. Many respondents said that the 2039 rule had a negative effect on the rights clearance process and was a barrier to putting collections online. Many also argued that the rule didn’t provide any “meaningful” benefit to the majority of copyright holders.

But those who opposed reducing the copyright term, including the representatives of rights holders, said that the rule should remain in force until 2039. Early removal, they said, would amount to a confiscation of property rights.

It was also argued that removing the rule would lead to a loss of commercial income for trusts that manage the rights of works created by deceased creators.

A range of cultural organisations, including the Imperial War Museum London, have campaigned for the law to be changed by displaying a blank page in a museum case rather than an unpublished first world war letter.