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27 April 2020

Thinking about copyright in digitisation projects

By Stephanie Ashcroft, Consultant & Rights Researcher

Credit: Magnolia, China by John Thomson. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

For the heritage sector, digitisation projects are a great way of making the most of your collections. As well as preserving your collections for the long-term, digitisation allows you to make them more accessible. This can increase visitor numbers, both in-house and to your website, and help you reach wider and more diverse audiences.

If you are applying for funding for a digitisation project, it is important to consider the impact that copyright might have on your workflow and output. Here are a few pointers to think about before applying for funding:

Refresh your copyright knowledge

As digitisation projects involve making and sharing copies of collection items, a good understanding of copyright is essential, and it is advised that at least one person involved in the project takes the lead on copyright compliance.

Copyright legislation includes numerous exceptions for heritage institutions – for example:

  • making preservations copies,
  • making extracts of some works available for research and private study,
  • making copies available onsite on dedicated terminals, and
  • using material for some educational purposes.

These exceptions don’t cover making copies available online – if you’d like to use your digitised material in these ways you will need to make some additional preparations, outlined below.

Check funding obligations

To secure funding, you will have to negotiate and agree on your project outputs with the funding body. For digitisation projects this is likely to include making material available as widely as possible. This could mean making it available online, or available to download with Creative Commons licences.

Copyright will affect how accessible you can make your digitised collections. You should audit the collections to check they are suitable and make sure you are able to meet funding obligations and expectations.

Audit your collections

A rights audit helps you evaluate your collections and get a clearer idea of how copyright might affect your project. The aim of the audit is to assess:

  • if the material is still in copyright (typically life of creator +70 years, or until at least 2039 if unpublished)
  • which rights exist in the collection (literary, artistic performance rights etc)
  • who owns the copyright in these works now (original creators, agents, next of kin etc)
  • if copyright owners are likely to ask for a licensing fee (more likely for published authors, artists etc, less likely for non-commercial creators)
  • if copyright owners are likely to agree to funding requirements (happy for their work to be made available online, agreeing to Creative Commons licences)
  • if collections are likely to contain orphan works (works that are in copyright, but where the copyright owner cannot be identified or contacted for permission)
  • if there are other legal considerations (data protection issues in unpublished interviews, letters etc)

This audit will help you to highlight potential problems in clearing copyright and make sure you allocate enough time and resource to complete the project.

Allocate resources

You will have to conduct some level of rights clearance if:

  • the material in your digitisation project is in copyright, and
  • your institution doesn’t own the copyright, and
  • you would like to use the material in a way that is not covered by copyright exceptions

Rights clearance involves contacting the copyright owners to ask for permission to use their work. If your project relates to one artist or author, or only includes a small amount of in-copyright material, this may be fairly easy. If there are complex rights issues in the collections this may take longer. You will need to decide who will complete this work and include the costs, both in terms of salaries and possible licensing fees, in your funding application.

These are some of the ways copyright might impact your digitisation project and how you can work copyright into your project planning. For more information about how copyright applies to the heritage sector, including copyright exceptions and orphan works, check out our free resources https://naomikorn.com/resources/

For information about our consultancy, training and rights clearance services please check our services page.

© Naomi Korn Associates, 2020. Some Rights Reserved. The text is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence (CC BY SA)