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A recent report by OCLC asked US and Canadian Special Collections librarians about the biggest problems they faced in their jobs  (“staffing” and “funding” were not allowed).  My answer would be copyright law, every time.

Every day Special Collections users and staff are frustrated by the complexities and uncertainties of UK copyright law.   The biggest concern: orphan works.  We’ve got 1000s of them, works that are (probably) in copyright but whose copyright holder is unknown or untraceable.  In from the Cold, the Strategic Content Alliance report on these works, estimated 50 million such works in the UK public sector!  They are in legal limbo: they can be seen but not copied or digitised or uploaded onto the web or data mined or any of the exciting things that can now be done with collections to bring them to life and make them useful.  No-one benefits from locking these works up.

So I was delighted to read the long-awaited report by Professor Hargreaves reviewing intellectual property in the digital age.  The report seems to have grasped the scale of the problem faced by archives and libraries and their users and to understand that letting this material sit unused is a pointless waste.  An example is cited of historic work on malaria which cannot be put to use by modern researchers because of these archaic laws.  The recommendations include a digital copyright exchange to simplify the process of seeking a licence and licensing for mass digitisation of orphan works.  Professor Hargreaves calls for a limit on over-regulation of copyright.  If the recommendations become legislation, I think the future for Special Collections will be brighter.

P.S. In case any of the rights holders I deal with are reading this … I have no problem with the original idea of copyright.  I am happy to protect the rights of the various estates and individuals whose materials we hold in Special Collections: writers, photographers – people for whom their creations are their income.  However, copyright has not moved with the times.   Users find it baffling and it is riddled with weird anomalies, like the poor orphans.  I hope this report will lead to changes that enable rights holders and society in general to benefit from an intellectual property regime that is fairer, simpler and actually makes sense.

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