Catch 2039 for Orphan Copyright Works

First World War Letters, Copyright Issues?

Museum display cabinets have been left empty this month due to copyright law. This law prevents the display of certain unpublished works until the year 2039. Institutions wanting to exhibit the letters and diaries written by soldiers during the First World War have been caught up in what is being called ‘Catch 2039’

The term refers to the legislation stating that orphan works and works by authors born before 1969 and which have not been published by 1 August 1989 are under copyright until the end of 2039, regardless of their age.

The imperial War Museum and the National Library of Scotland have joined forces with the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals to launch the ‘Free Our History’ Campaign, which seeks to have the term of copyright protection in certain unpublished text based works to reduced to the authors life time plus 70 years. If for example a letter is written by a soldier in 1914, but was killed in 1916, the copyright protection in the letter will expire in 1986 (meaning museums could display and copy the letter freely)

Being the centenary of the start of the First World War, there is a rush of interest in the historical event, therefore more and more letters and diaries are appearing from the woodwork. The change in copyright law will allow, museums and other prestigious institutions to accommodate for this popularity and allow people to get a true glimpse in to life in the early 1900s.

The Imperial War Museum estimates that 20-25% of its 1.75 million strong collection of documents are orphan works.

A week before the campaign began, the UK Government launched a licensing scheme that allows for orphan works to be reproduced and for the rights holders to be compensated if they come forward. Campaigners argue that this does not address the issue. Naomi Korn, a copyright consultant, told the Museums Journal that it was “preposterous” to launch such a scheme without dealing with the 2039 issue.

For more information regarding this campaign visit:

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