15 June 2016

Unpublished Text Based Works & 2039


Imagine you find a letter in your library, archive or museum. It is old, really old; an important historic document that has never seen the light of day before. This might include letters written in the First World War, diaries by Suffragettes and even notes from the Easter Uprising and the Battle of Waterloo.

You would think that you could freely publish it and share its contents with the world. Wrong.

In the UK, the duration of copyright in certain unpublished works is to the end of the year 2039, regardless of how old the work is. Normally, copyright in text based works lasts for the life time of the author plus a further 70 years.

This extra long duration of copyright, until 2039, presents severe resource implications for the UK’s cultural heritage sector at a time when it is under unimaginable funding pressures. In addition, the likelihood of rights research and possible licence fees associated with  these works results in an inexcusable double whammy effect of extra costs when resources are so stretched.

The Free our History Campaign

In 2013, the UK Government passed the Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act (ERRA) which included provisions to reverse this absurd international copyright duration anomaly. In 2014, the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance (LACA) supported by CILIP, led a high profile media campaign together with the Imperial War Museums, the National Library of Scotland and Leeds University Archives – “Free Our History” – to raise awareness of this issue and try and influence the Government to see good their commitment in the ERRA.

With press and media coverage across the world, a petition and public support, the campaign was a success in raising the issue and making the argument that this duration of copyright is considerably more costly and restrictive, than of benefit. Despite this, the UK Government decided that the reduction of term in unpublished text based could be a breach of the Human Rights Act and backtracked.

What is the impact?

Since the Government chose not to reform the 2039 provisions in unpublished text based works:

  1. The centenary of the out break of the First World War, the Easter Up Rising and the bi-centenary of the Battle of Waterloo have been and gone, representing a significant resource impact on UK cultural heritage organisations because of 2039 affected works.
  2. The UK is amongst other EU members who recognise that 28 copyright laws across the 28 member states is bad for the Single Digital Market. Harmonisation of copyright duration is a vital component of this work.
  3. Imminent anniversaries to commemorate the Battle of the Jutland (May – June 2016) and the first vote for women in the UK in 1918, are continuing to stretch our cultural heritage organisations more than they should because of unnecessary rights research and related costs.
  4. Some cultural heritage organisations are choosing not to engage with 2039 works because of the resource implications and therefore contributing to the “black hole” of 19th and 20th century cultural heritage.
  5. Hundreds of museums, libraries and archives have shut down across the UK because of a lack of money.
  6. The Museum of London Archaeology has just discovered what is believed to be the oldest hand written tablet from the Roman period. Under the 2039 rule, this is now likely to be the oldest in copyright orphan work in the UK, if not in the world.

LACA, supported by CILIP, believes that this is not good enough and the UK Government needs to understand the costs to the sector of the 2039 provisions. This is why LACA is launching a survey to try and cost the impact of these provisions and therefore persuade UK Government that the costs of 2039 outweigh any perceived risks.

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