Copyright battle over orphan works - Museums Association

Copyright battle over orphan works

Campaign wants more access to culturally important material
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Simon Stephens
Imperial War Museums (IWM) is among a group of cultural organisations that has launched a campaign to increase access to important historical works through copyright law reform.

The Free Our History campaign wants the term of copyright protection in unpublished texts to be reduced to the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. This change would reduce the number of orphan works, which are items where the rights holder cannot be identified and/or traced. IWM has an estimated 1.75 million documents that are orphan works.

At the moment the duration of copyright in certain unpublished works is to the end of 2039, regardless how old the work is.

The organisations involved say that the law as it stands is preventing them from publishing and displaying original and reproduced material that would be of interest to the public. This is currently an important issue for those museums, libraries and archives that are working on world war one centenary exhibitions and activities.

“During the first world war centenary commemorations, many organisations want to make original unpublished works such as diaries and letters accessible to the public,” said Diane Lees, the director general of IWM. “Because they are still under copyright protection, they cannot do so without seeking permission from the rights holder. This is even more problematic if the rights holders are untraceable.”

The Free Our History campaign coincides with the government’s launch of a licensing scheme that is designed to give wider access to at least 91 million orphan works, including diaries, photographs, oral history recordings and documentary films.

Under the new scheme, the Intellectual Property Office can grant a licence so that these works can be reproduced, while protecting the rights of owners so they can be remunerated if they come forward.

The scheme is being implemented alongside the EU Orphan Works Directive, which enables cultural institutions to digitise certain orphan works in their collection and display them on their websites.

But cultural organisations argue that the delay in reducing copyright protection in unpublished texts means that one of the main reasons for there being so many orphan works will not be alleviated.

“It is preposterous to launch an orphan works licensing scheme without dealing with the cause of so many of these works - which is the 2039 issue," said Naomi Korn, a copyright expert and chairwoman of the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance, one of the supporters of the Free Our History campaign.

“The campaign is about raising the profile of the issue to make sure there is enough time in parliament before the general election to deal with this.”

The Intellectual Property Office has responded to the concerns of the sector in a letter from Baroness Neville Rolfe, the minister for Intellectual Property, to Annie Mauger, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals, another of the organisations involved in the Free Our History campaign.

The letter says: “The government will be working hard to take the ‘2039’ regulations through parliament in the next six months. It is important to get the regulations right, and ensure that the needs of all parties are balanced fairly.”

There is currently a large administrative burden and cost for museums, libraries and archives, as they have to evaluate the risk and repercussions of displaying and using  works that are over 100 years old, which are still technically in copyright.

The provision to reduce the copyright protection in unpublished texts was included in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. It is part of the wider programme of work to modernise the UK’s copyright system following the 2011 Hargreaves Review.

Copyright is the focus of the next issue of Museum Practice, which will be published on 15 November

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