UK Museums Display Empty Vitrines In Protest Over Orphan Works Copyright Law

The Imperial War Museums, the National Library of Scotland, and other institutions across the UK, are exhibiting empty museum cases to protest against current copyright laws, which won’t allow the public display of unpublished works until 2039, the Art Newspaper reports. The new law is dubbed “Catch 2039” by campaigners,and has become of a particular problem for institutions that want to display original letters and diaries written by soldiers during the First World War, to coincide with the centenary commemorations.

Under the current law, “orphan works” – which are works whose rights-holders could not be identified or contacted – as well as works by authors born before 1969 which had remained unpublished by August 1989, are under copyright, and therefore locked until 2039.

In protest, nine UK institutions which included the illustrious Imperial War Museum, the National Library of Scotland, the University of Leeds, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, and the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance; have all launched the Free Our History campaign. This campaign by the institutions seeks to reduce the term of copyright protection of affected works to the author’s lifetime plus 70 years.

Diane Lees, the director-general of the Imperial War Museums stated that: “During the First World War centenary commemorations, many organisations want to make original unpublished works such as diaries and letters accessible to the public, because they are still under copyright protection, they cannot do so without seeking permission from the rights holder. This is even more problematic if the rights holders are untraceable.”

The irony of the new law is that although the UK government introduced a new copyright regulation which allows “orphan works” to be reproduced on websites, books, and in other media- it does not address the heart of the matter for museums: that the display of originals in museums and libraries is still forbidden.

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