“Free Our History”: Campaign launched by UK museums and libraries.

In a Christmas newsflash, Vincenza Giglione looks at how UK museums and libraries are seeking to change the copyright of historical documents to “Free our History”.

Early in November, museums, libraries and cultural organisations all over the UK launched the “Free our History”campaign against the restrictions on public release of documents.

As part of the First World War Centenary, libraries and museums in the UK want to make unpublished letters and diaries from the First World War accessible to the public, but due to current UK Copyright law they have been prevented from doing so.

Museums and libraries around the country actually have empty display cabinets which should contain letters from the First World War.

Where the problem lies

At the moment, works which were unpublished when the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act came into force (on 1 August 1989) are protected for 50 years from the end of that year, regardless of how old the work is.

Therefore both reproducing these works and displaying the original would require permission from the rights holders. This becomes problematic if the rights holders are untraceable.

This is the case for a great number of works in the UK’s archives: as a 2009 report has revealed, up to 50% are orphan works – still in copyright and where the rights holder cannot be identified or traced; this is approximately 20-25% of the Imperial War Museum’s collection.

“Free our History”

The aim of the “Free our History” campaign is to reduce the term of copyright protection in unpublished works from its current end date in 2039 to the author’s lifetime plus 70 years as set out in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (ERRA) 2013, meaning the Imperial War Museum, and other libraries and museums, cannot display poignant pieces of history.

Campaigners are asking Government to prioritize this issue and to achieve this change in the law ahead of the general election in May 2015.

Diane Lees, Director-General of Imperial War Museum has invited “everyone who cares about our history, everyone who cares about telling our collective story without restrictions” to join the campaign by signing a petition and by spreading the word on Twitter using the hashtag #catch2039 and to “Free our History”.

If you have not done it so far, this could be your good deed for Christmas and a brilliant start to 2015!

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