Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Tracing Help With Copyright: New AHDS Case Studies on Copyright Issues

Alastair Dunning provides an overview of case studies published by the Arts and Humanities Data Service in that persistent minefield of respecting copyright.

The Web statistics tool which measures hits on the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) Web site [1] provides some telling information. The most common search engine keyword by which users discover the AHDS is not 'computers', 'humanities', 'research' or 'arts', but that old bugbear 'copyright'. Although the Arts and Humanities Data Service advises on a wide range of issues, such as data capture, metadata and funding proposals, copyright is just as popular a reason for users to arrive at the Web site.

During 2004, I embarked on a small investigation into some of the particular copyright problems faced by those creating digital material of cultural or historical importance. The outputs from this investigation aimed not to develop more sets of guidelines that projects would have to assimilate and put into practice, but instead hoped to chart the specific routes taken by completed digitisation projects; the idea being that while there is much written about copyright, there is little indication of how projects actually implement the sometimes vague copyright law.

The results of this particular research are two case studies, now published on the AHDS Web site, along with a range of other copyright resources [2]. And while the case studies ostensibly dealt with two different types of copyright problem and different projects, they demonstrate that there are overlapping approaches in how copyright clearance is tackled.

Tracing Copyright Holders and Developing Licences

The first case study looks at the work of two New Opportunities Fund (NOF) supported projects [3]. The Coalfield Web Materials Project, based at the University of Swansea, was digitising an archive relating to South Wales coal-mining; the archive, including material from the nineteenth century to the present day, incorporates photographs, pamphlets, newspaper clippings, posters and audiovisual material [4]. Meanwhile, the Hantsphere Project, organised via Hampshire County Council, was creating a local studies resource on the history and heritage of Hampshire, digitising, among other objects, postcards, photographs and prints from the late eighteenth century to the present day [5]. The concern here was how these projects traced the copyright holders. It was clear many of the objects in question were still in copyright, but how did the projects locate the rights holders of photographs where the figures are unknown, of prints where the locations are unrecognisable and other objects where the companies behind them no longer existed?

The second case study looks at a project managed by the AHDS, the Fine Art Project, which digitised and disseminated works that formed part of UK art school collections [6]. For this case study, tracing the copyright holders presented less of a problem; slightly more attention had to be paid to getting the copyright holders, often wary of digitisation, to sign the licence form to permit digital capture of their work.

Social Engagement

Perhaps the most striking feature to come out of both case studies was that dealing with copyright was much more of a social than a legal concern. Rather than spending time consulting legal texts and spending money on solicitors, the task of copyright clearance involved much more engagement with people related to the project. Both the Swansea and Hampshire teams emphasised the importance of using local networks of knowledge, contacting retired staff, local history groups and liaising with the press in order to unearth more clues and uncover copyright holders. It was by calling on such local sources of expertise that connections began to be made, permitting the teams to identify the relevant copyright holders.

For those working on the Fine Art Project, the personal aspect of copyright clearance was also important. Some of the rights holders were sceptical about the digital dissemination of their work; there is a natural suspicion that work can be edited or sold on the Internet without the artist receiving any reward. Personal discussion with artists or their representatives therefore allowed the Fine Art Project to demonstrate the pedagogic context of the project, and that it involved established educational institutions. Thus fears about the project were allayed and this smoothed the process of getting the licences signed.

When seen in this light, inserting a copyright strand into a project becomes less of a chore and more of a feature from which to benefit. Not only did bringing the project to a wider range of people assist in its marketing, but it aided other aspects. Individuals or groups contacted for help with the copyright query of a particular object were often able to supply further information to the project; designers of posters and postcards could be located, previous owners of items identified, clues about other copyright holders given. While time-consuming work - Swansea, for instance, appointed a copyright officer to focus on this aspect of the project - locating copyright holders had benefits for the project rather than just being a necessary burden.

Protecting Digital Property

To these two case studies, an AHDS colleague, William Kilbride, has added a third [7]. This has looked at copyright from the other side - a collection has been digitised and placed online, only for unauthorised copies of the digital images to appear elsewhere on the Web. How does the curator of digital material deal with this? Kilbride's case study looks at the problem in the context of images taken from a digitised archaeological collection related to Christ Church, Spitalfields; a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that some of the images showed human remains, where there were obvious ethical concerns. As with the previous case studies, negotiation was important. This allowed the hosts of the collection to discuss the matter with the party that had illegally republished the images, and to come to an agreement without the
need for any serious legal battle.


This research, and the available resources on the AHDS Web site, are far from solving all users' queries with copyright. The investigation showed that many potential digitisers are aware of many difficulties; for example, ascertaining the copyright status of unpublished material, methods of dealing with international copyright, especially in non-western countries, and how to classify the copyright status of historic works of artistic craftsmanship such as puppets, toys and souvenirs. For cases such as these, advice is not only lacking but there is little clear guidance from the law as to how digitisers should proceed. However, it is hoped that the paths taken by the teams shown in the AHDS articles can indicate how others might want to approach some of the more common copyright issues in the cultural heritage sector, and that the case studies provide a model for others who are wanting to share their experiences in this area.


  1. The Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) http://www.ahds.ac.uk/
  2. AHDS Copyright Resources, http://ahds.ac.uk/copyright/
  3. Dunning, A, "Tracing Copyright Holders: How two digitisation projects coped with copyright for historical material", http://ahds.ac.uk/creating/case-studies/tracing-copyright/
  4. Coalfield Web Materials http://www.agor.org.uk/cwm/
  5. Hantsphere, http://www.hantsphere.org.uk/
  6. Dunning, A, "Developing Licence Agreements for Digitisation: The Fine Art Project", http://ahds.ac.uk/creating/case-studies/developing-licences/ Also The Fine Art Project, http://www.fineart.ac.uk/
  7. Kilbride, W, "Copyright and intellectual property rights: a case study from the web face" http://ahds.ac.uk/creating/case-studies/protecting-rights/

Author Details

Alastair Dunning
Communications Manager
King's College London

Email: alastair.dunning@ahds.ac.uk
Web site: http://ahds.ac.uk/

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