Campaign to free our history – reform copyright

Help the Campaign to provide greater access to important historical works through copyright law reform.

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Everyone who cares about our history, everyone who cares about telling our collective story without restrictions, please read on.

At the moment, display cases in the National Library of Scotland, the Imperial War Museum, and the University of Leeds sit empty. They should contain letters from the First World War; but because of current UK copyright laws these letters cannot be displayed.

This is because certain unpublished works are in copyright until the end of 2039, regardless how old the work is. So even a letter written in 1810, containing notes on local churches, or a counter for rheumatism, could still be in copyright, so we couldn’t show it to you on this blog.

The Free Our History campaign wants ‘the 2039 rule’ for unpublished documents to be reduced to the author’s lifetime plus 70 years.

Provision for this change already exists in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (ERRA), which has already been passed by Parliament. Yet this change is still not on the statute books.

We ask you all to support this Campaign by signing the petition at and use #catch2039 on Twitter to spread the word.

2 thoughts on “Campaign to free our history – reform copyright

  1. As an example of how outdated this law is, I recently applied to the British Library for a copy of a letter written in 1727 by my five times great aunt when she travelled to India to join her brother. The material was sold to the BL in 1960.

    I have been asked to provide signed permission from the copyright holder before the British Library can copy it!

    As my 5xgreat aunt married in India her property and presumably her rights to her letter would then have belonged to her husband. This would also have been true of all her female descendants until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870. Assuming I can track down any descendants, am I required to provide a fully authenticated family tree proving that they must in fact be the copyright holder?

    • Hi Anne

      You would only be required to get the written approval of each copyright holder. In this case the copyright holder(s) would be the surviving direct descendant(s) of your 5 times great aunt. While it is difficult to comment with any certainty without seeing the letter, I am surprised that you can’t obtain a copy through Fair Dealing and Library Privilege. Although this would only be possible if the work is to be only used for private study or non-commercial research. Also, I can’t comment on how Indian Copyright law may affect the rights to the letter.

      If Indian Copyright law does not impact on the copyright of this letter, and if you establish that there are no surviving copyright holders, then the letter can be declared an ‘orphan work’. Although this would not be the end of the matter. If you wish to use this work for reasons other than private study or non-commercial research, you will need to apply to the Intellectual Property Office for a licence to use the work for the next seven years:

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