The digital rights of the dead

You might have thought copyright issues would be the least of the worries for a project that’s digitising books from as far back as the 1800s. But because British law grants copyright for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, even books published as late as 1850 could still conceivably be illegal to copy without permission.

The big problem is rooting them out from a collection of 100,000 titles. “We’ve seen a case study that says it takes two hours per book [to research copyright],” says Ben White, copyright compliance manager at the British Library. “If that’s true, it would take 36 years to do the permissions for every book. There’s another study that says 12 hours per book, which means the entire collection would take 219 years. They’d definitely be out of copyright by then!”

Instead, the Library is using a database of authors to check which books could potentially remain in copyright. Books that are protected – which White estimates is fewer than 1% of the collection – won’t even be digitised to ensure they aren’t accidentally republished online.

The process is further complicated by “orphan works” – books where it’s impossible to track down the rights holder because they’re unknown or can’t be traced from the computer database. White says up to 40% of the books fall into this category. The orphan works will be digitised, but the Library will implement a “notice and takedown” procedure on its website, where rights holders can request their book is removed from the collection.

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