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Books

Duration of copyright

The duration of copyright is measured from the date of its author’s death, if known, and if not, the date of a work’s first publication. As they had never been published or the dates of their authors’ deaths can’t be known, under UK law before 1988 the clock had never started ticking on unpublished, anonymous or pseudonymous works, and even extremely old works remained in unlimited copyright. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 tried to fix this by declaring that the duration of copyright in such works would end in 2039, fifty years after the Act came into force.

What’s the problem?

The Internet and digitisation have made everyone greedy, impatient, and unwilling to wait until 2039, and there are demands to have free, legal access to these works right now.

For example, the British Library rather sanctimoniously claims that because it must remain within the law at all times it cannot publish medieval manuscripts in its collection because that would be criminal activity, even though publishing them would be a truly victimless crime because the chance of those manuscripts’ rights owners turning up and making claims for copyright infringement is absolutely zero. (In fact the British Library has already published quite a lot of them, which rather undermines its argument: 'Technically these works are still in copyright in the UK until 2040, but given that they are anonymous and many centuries old, the Library has decided to provide the images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts under a Public Domain Mark and treat them as public domain works, as would be the case in many other countries.' .)

Of course it’s absurd that medieval manuscripts should remain in copyright and Clause 67 tries to satisfy these demands, but as written it says:

(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations amend Schedule 1 to reduce the duration of copyright in existing works which are—

  1. unpublished, or
  2. published but anonymous or pseudonymous.
…and that’s about it. The clause is so widely drafted that as it stands, any unpublished, anonymous or pseudonymous work in existence in 1989 could fall within its powers. Novels by ‘C. S Forester’, ‘George Orwell’ and even ‘Andy McNab’ could have copyright protection stripped from them. Almost any anonymised photograph could be up for grabs.

The EU Orphan Works Directive must be implemented in UK law within two years. An anonymous or pseudonymous work is practically indistinguishable from an orphan work; why can’t these works be treated as orphan works? Because to do so would require a costly diligent search for the rights owner? Yet again, do we find the Cultural Heritage Sector trying to cut corners and costs?

There is no need for this clause. It should be removed.




Removing Copyright Protection