Monday, 25 June 2012 INDEX

The madness of archivia
Archives are a good thing aren't they? The British Library, county archives, Kew and the many other, all fantastic organisations whose only purpose is to serve the historians and the curious. What could be better than that? True altruism?

Well up to a point, Lord Popper, to quote Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.

There used to be a sort of deal with public records (wills, birth, marriage and death certificates, census records, etc.) that the people would provide the information, park it in a central registry and then have access to it in perpetuity.

No-one minds a small administrative charge being levied in order to allow the archive to continue to exist. Well, that's an exaggeration (perhaps). In these days of the internet, in which it is said information wants to be free, people do mind but they put up with it.

What is really galling is that these organisations have started to claim copyright over the documents, as if they own them rather than the original creators (or their heirs and successors).

But surely, you object, copyright only lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator of the object (whatever it is)? How can wills, for example, be the copyright of anyone if they are more than 70 years old? Most people only start to get interested in wills when they were issued a century or more ago, so what's the problem?

Well, the archives make it as difficult as possible for you to copy the things they hold. You can not wander into a gallery and photograph an old master. It may be hundreds of years old but it is effectively the copyright of the gallery because photographic copies of it are tightly controlled by the gallery.

Many archives refuse to allow you to copy the documents they hold. Copies will usually be available but you have to pay an extortionate fee to get the copy. This fee will be something like £5. It didn't seem like a lot in the days when photography was expensive (you needed negatives and paper), but in these digital days, it's possible to create thousands, perhaps millions of photos for a fiver.

But a fiver (you protest) that's not much! Well, first of all you don't know how poor I am. Second, it isn't just one fiver if you are searching for something it can be quite a lot of fivers.

I run a kind of mini archive myself. I am one of the GOONS, a member of the Guild of One Name Studies. I have registered the name Brind and I am supposed to get an index of all the basic information relating to Brind births, marriages and deaths. Up until recently I could buy a single copy of a document and then provide it to any Brind family history researcher.

Up until recently I could pay the fivers, get the documents and copy them, even posting them online. Of course the archive would know I had breached its copyright (the copy of the copy, if you see what I mean), but since I was giving it away for free there would be little point in the archive pursuing me.

I can't do this any more. Archives have discovered a new technology that prevents, or makes difficult, the copying of documents. Since the originals are usually pretty awful, this additional level of obstruction makes the whole process more or less pointless. The archives have won. They control the documents. They own them.

The purpose of copyright is supposed to be to give the author of the piece, the due rewards of his or her work. Edward Munch created four versions of The Scream. I could imagine each being hung in a gallery and that gallery having the right to control access to the physical object. That makes sense. But when it comes to making copies of the The Scream, I think it belongs not to any one of those galleries but to Edward Munch (or his heirs and successors), if it belongs to anyone. To buy an object is not to buy the copyright. If you buy a copy of one of the Harry Potter books, believe me, you do not own the copyright.

People often donate things to archives because they believe they are providing a public good or they are putting something important on record. Think of the photographer who hands over an archive to the local library so that the pictures will be available for the local community. Such altruism is not uncommon.

If the archive then exerts copyright over those photographs isn't that a kind of artistic theft: wrong on two levels? It is wrong because the archive doesn't own the copyright (the originator still owns that), but it is also wrong because on many levels, it subverts the whole purpose of copyright.

Firstly, there's the 70 year issue. No one owns the copyright of something produced in antiquity. It is a public good. Anyone can use it. Secondly, what is happening is that copyright is being changed from something belonging to artists or creators to an organisational or corporate right.

Big business rules or big business sets the rules.

Posted by Jonathan Brind
Monday, 25 June 2012 INDEX