Earlier in the year, we saw museums, libraries, archives and educational establishments benefit from a re-evaluation of copyright law which were newly accommodating, particularly in regards to media and digital materials. I saw first-hand in a visit to the Shakespeare Globe Theatre archives how researchers were restricted to viewing footage under supervision in the confines of the premises despite viewing for non-commercial use. Though the reforms have alleviated many of the problems learning institutes were facing as part of embracing the digital age, recent events have highlighted that more needs to be done to copyright laws in order for the UK to maximise the utility of its rich historical sources and wealth of information.
With the imminent approach of the centenary of Remembrance Day, museums, archives and libraries across the nation are curating and launching exhibitions in celebration of the momentous event. Existing copyright laws, however, currently stipulate that orphaned works such as diaries, letters and journals remain under protection and cannot be published until the year 2039 unless permission is given by the rights holder. These restrictions have hampered arts institutions nationwide by acutely prohibiting the exposition of valuable sources that give insightful, first-hand accounts of Britain’s social history throughout the Great War.
On Thursday 23rd October, The Chartered institute of library and information professionals launched a campaign soliciting the government to revoke these laws, applying for a minimised sentence of the author’s lifetime plus seventy years. A petition was created and social media platforms helped drive campaign. Twitter was at the forefront of the operation, encouraging advocates to promote the movement by signing the petition and quoting #catch2039. The operation was backed by many major UK institutions such as The National Museum of Scotland, The Imperial War Museum and The Collections Trust. CILIP advised that organizations with exhibitions leading up to November 11th should demonstrate their support by displaying blank sheets of paper with the following message captioning:
We would have liked to show you a letter from a First World War soldier here*. But due to current copyright laws we are unable to display the original. Those laws mean that some of the most powerful diaries and letters in our collections cannot be displayed. All that we ask is that copyright law is changed so that the duration of copyright in certain unpublished works lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years, rather than until the end of the year 2039. This would help us to give voice to more of the men, women and children who lived through some of the most turbulent times in our history. We want to tell their stories. Join the campaign to Free Our History by signing a petition at http://www.cilip.org.uk/freeourhistory and by tweeting your support using #catch2039. – See more at: http://www.cilip.org.uk/cilip/advocacy-campaigns-awards/advocacy-campaigns/free-our-history#sthash.aMKpmtgZ.dpuf
On the Fourth November, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the secretary of state for intellectual property at the department for business innovation and skills sent correspondence to Annie Mauger, the chief executive of CILIP detailing how the government agreed that the laws should be amended and that it would be prioritised in the lead up to the elections.
It certainly feels like this is a crucial time for The UK to be drawing level with the rest of Europe and indeed the world. The inability to not only celebrate but keep on teaching about World War One to a younger generation whose affinity with the event wares thinner with every decade is a very sad thing. We really should be seizing opportunities like this or alternatively face the risk of losing part of our heritage. I am certainly not implying that The Great War will be forgotten but circumstances such as this are only facilitating a loss of knowledge and therefore interest amongst the younger generation.
It seems ironic that whilst CILIP has progressed to achieve observer status at The World Intellectual Property Organisation and will be amongst those influencing the field of knowledge and information at an international level, The UK is still struggling with unaccommodating copyright laws that are tripping us up over the smallest and most unnecessary hurdles.