November 25, 2014

Protest across Britain… in library display cases


Sad case in the National Library of Scotland shared via Creative Commons.

Sad case in the National Library of Scotland shared via Creative Commons.

Why have letters gone missing from the National Library of Scotland, and many display cases across Britain?

Orphaned works–those written before 1969 and that were not published by August 1, 1989–are currently subject to copyright in the UK through the year 2039, regardless of the year these texts were written. That means seventeenth-century texts, soldiers’ letters from WWI, and as many as 50% of many UK library collections cannot be displayed until 2039. (There’s a way or two around this, but many librarians want this information to be accessible to the public.)

This month, librarians are protesting. The Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) started a campaign to change the copyright law to seventy years after the author’s death. This is not just a petition, but a protest that extends to libraries across the country. Exhibits that might otherwise include orphaned works now display a card that reads:

We would have liked to show you a letter from a First World War soldier here. But due to current copyright laws we are unable to display the original. Those laws mean that some of the most powerful diaries and letters in our collections cannot be displayed.

All that we ask is that copyright law is changed so that the duration of copyright in certain unpublished works lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years, rather than until the end of the year 2039.

This would help us to give voice to more of the men, women and children who lived through some of the most turbulent times in our history. We want to tell their stories. Join the campaign to Free Our History by signing a petition at and by tweeting your support using #catch2039.

It’s sort of an installation art protest. UK copyright law is wild, as we’ve covered here before. Is this law designed to serve companies like Google and Facebook, rather than library visitors?

The Catch 2039 campaign is focused on lifting copyright restrictions not just to letters, but to artwork and engravings, too. A lift on the copyright restrictions would make a big difference to UK libraries: Imperial War Museums alone have some 1.5 million orphaned works, according to the CILIP.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.