That 2039 rule in UK copyright law: a recent example (Or – What a 19th Century Feminist Looks Like)

We have been working with some new volunteer cataloguing assistants in the past few days.  One of them, Roger, listed what turned out to be a fascinating and eclectic assemblage of 18th to 20th century documents which were transferred here from Derby Local Studies Library in 2001.  Among them is a short essay by one Joseph Shepherd, entitled “A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Thoughts on their Position in Society”.  The title must be inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s similarly-named publication of 1792 but is of a much later date.  The author mentions that a personal friend of his was treated by Florence Nightingale at Scutari; that, plus the handwriting and the look of the paper, makes it likely that it dates from the second half of the 19th century.  It would be nice to scan the essay and include its pages in this post, or add images of the text to our catalogue so people could read it.  Somebody reading it might know some more about the author – who he was, what else he wrote, what was his place in society… However, an essay – like a letter, a diary, or a poem – is legally classed as a literary work and if it hasn’t been published already, it stays in copyright until 2039.

If we were absolutely determined to share this essay with the wider world, our only option would be to try and trace whether this Joseph Shepherd has any living descendants and then ask their permission.  I suspect they would be stunned by the news that they were the unwitting inheritors of an unexploited literary estate!

There are arguments for and against the status quo.  But if the law as it stands is something you wish could be changed, now is the time to sign CILIP’s “Free Our History” petition.

3 thoughts on “That 2039 rule in UK copyright law: a recent example (Or – What a 19th Century Feminist Looks Like)

  1. Pingback: More on “Free our history” | IAML (UK & Irl)

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