Ethel: First World War Heroine – Copyright Lessons for the 21st Century

Ethel Bilborough was a journalist and an artist, who wrote a personal diary during the outbreak of the First World War. Her diary, which was handwritten, is owned by the Imperial War Museums in London (IWM). More about Ethel can be found here: http://www.chislehurst-society.org.uk/Pages/About/People/BilbroughEthel.html

Photo 15-11-2016, 15 32 32

This is primarily the copyright story of how Ethel’s diary became a hard-back book published by Ebury Press in association with IWM and currently available from Amazon. Whilst there is seemingly a massive difference between the rights issues associated with a diary written over a 100 years ago and the digital age of today, the parallels are striking.

Ethel’s diary includes a number of her sketches. She also used the diary as a scrapbook and cut things out and pasted them in, including an envelope which had been opened by the official wartime censor, newspaper cuttings, stamps etc.

The original diary had been gifted to the Imperial War Museums some years ago, but at the time of acquisition into IWM’s collections, neither a copyright transfer (assignment) nor a licence had been sought. Ethel died in the 1950’s. Because her diary was not published in her lifetime, the duration of copyright under UK copyright law lasts until the end of the year 2039!

IWM’s contractual obligations to  Ebury Press, copyright compliance and ethical drivers were clear – copyright permission had to be sought!

Ethel did not have a digital footprint, so IWM got hold of both her will and that of her husband – Kenneth Bilborough. Ethel died before Kenneth and he married his secretary Elsie. Elsie did not leave a will but had a living relative. The journey was fascinating – the copyright in Ethel’s will was owned by Ethel’s first husband’s second wife’s niece. IWM secured a transfer of copyright from the niece, but that was not the end of the story.

The next issue IWM faced when reproducing Ethel’s diary was how to deal with all of the additional material she stuck into her diary from outside sources. Therefore to reproduce the diary IWM spent a large amount of time to research all the different items within the diary, find out who produced them and ask their permission to use them. Using Image Recognition Software such as Tin Eye, Foto Forensics and Google Image Search, IWM managed to identify the sources of the commercially licensing content and requested the necessary permissions.

Far from being irrelevant, the copyright story of Ethel Bilborough’s diary presents some fascinating insights into contemporary copyright issues associated with the digital age:

  1. The way in which Ethel cut and pasted materials created by other people into her diary, is just like the copying/cutting and pasting of digital content into digital resources. The resulting copyright issues associated with these layers of rights in which rights will be owned by other people, will be  identical.
  2. Time and resources are needed to identify, research and clear these rights.
  3. Copyright is a business critical issue: its about weighing up the costs, versus the benefits, versus the risks.
  4. This story illustrates the need to consider copyright at the point of acquisition/commissioning of any type of content, whether print or digital. Without clear agreements in writing, digital content, or a work, might be acquired or commissioned, but it cannot be used. This will represent inefficiencies in rights clearance and can impact on profit margin for commercial products if rights are not dealt with at the right time.
  5. It is very important that copyright and licensing commitments in any contracts with third parties, such as funding bodies are identified and acted upon. For example, Funders may well expect you to have the permissions for you and probably them to publish digital content, and possibly under certain specific licensing conditions (such as Creative Commons). 
  6. Ethel’s story is exceptional, the underlying copyright story is fascinating.

©Naomi Korn, 2016 @ 2017. Some Rights Reserved. This article may be reused and shared under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence

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