9 December 2016

Cultural Exchange of Copyright Issues and Opportunities in Chinese and UK Museums

I’ve just returned from China having participated in the two day UK-China Museum Commercial Enterprise and Copyright Protection and Utilisation Training at Guangdong Museum funded by Arts Exhibition China and the British Council as well as the 2nd Guangzhou International Exposition on Copyright Trade Museum of Cultural Relics. It’s been an amazing honour and privilege to have met colleagues from across museums in China, and discuss with them shared copyright issues, challenges and opportunities. I was part of a small British Council delegation, also including John Walker, Director of Commercial Enterprise, Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives, and Anne Buky, Licensing Consultant, and our role was to present a UK perspective on copyright, business development and brand licensing to senior representatives from about 100 museums across China at the first event, and a similar number at the second event.

img_1584Courtesy of the British Council

Even though the UK and China have slightly different copyright laws, the underlying principles are very similar. During the training and subsequent discussions, I was able to refer to four of my current and recent clients, the Imperial War Museums, the Museum of London, Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Academy of Arts in order to draw on practical examples and share how I’ve worked with them to identify, manage protect rights and therefore better use and exploit their collection items.


Courtesy of the British Council

During the sessions, I outlined some shared challenges and opportunities faced by UK and Chinese Museums relating to copyright which include:

  • The duration of copyright in collection items will last for the lifetime of the creator plus a number of years after their death (China = 50), (UK = 70). This means that if the creator of the these items is either still alive or been dead for a short while, copyright will still be active in these items.
  • The volume of collection items owned across China and the UK, ranging from all type of objects and all types of ages, means that copyright will affect at least some items.
  • Many items will include layers of rights that will require identifying and clearing  – we spoke about Ethel Bilborough’s Diary, owned by the Imperial War Museums as a good example from the UK.
  • How the ownership of copyright by the creators and after their death, their rights holders will mean that any kind of web use and/or commercial exploitation will require permission.
  • Many museums across China and also in the UK will own older relics and other items which are long out of copyright, or in some instances, were never in copyright. However, any designs, illustrations, photos, films, digital media items etc commissioned by museums from external professionals, will require the use of contracts and within these, appropriate clauses to ensure that the museum has all the rights to use the resulting work in whatever ways they want.
  • Copyright is a critical business issue, and the identification, clearance and recording of rights need to be factored into the costs, benefits and risks of any project, and particularly those where the desired outcome is commercial enterprise.
  • Finally, by developing policies, procedures, tools, systems to record rights and permissions, and staff training and development, museums across China and the UK can learn from each other about how they can support positive staff attitudes, behaviours and practices relating to copyright. This will reduce risks of infringement and optimise opportunities for commercial exploitation.

I had such a wonderful time meeting new colleagues and sharing perspectives on UK copyright practices in China and learning about Chinese copyright issues. I am indebited to the British Council for inviting me and Art Exhibitions China and the British Council for arranging such an amazing cultural exchange. I do hope that there will opportunities to return to China in the future and continue to share ideas with colleagues from across Chinese Museums.


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