Newspaper copyright and Living with Machines

||||Written by Claire AustinMarch 19, 2020Comments: 0

In my role as Rights Assurance Manager for Living with Machines, it’s my job to ensure that the project has lawful access to all of the data it uses in its analysis.  In the UK, copyright for published material for the most part lasts for 70 years from the death of the author. If you know the date the author died, it’s easy to work out when copyright lapses. For well-known authors, this is relatively easy. For less well-known or completely unknown authors, it’s a lot harder.

The scale of our collections makes a rule of thumb necessary. The British Library, in conjunction with other organisations, had previously determined that as a conservative estimate, publications over 140 years old were very unlikely to still be in copyright, while more recent publications were more likely to be in copyright. If you have a small collection, you can research individual authors – but the British Library has over 14 million books and 60 million newspapers, so it’s very useful to use this rule of thumb to gauge whether an item is likely to be in copyright.

Newspapers are particularly complicated. Although the newspapers are likely to own the copyright to articles, an issue of a newspaper will have works from any number of writers, all with differing expiry dates.  And what do you do about the un-named authors, of which there are many in newspapers?  If there is a small provincial title it is unlikely a comprehensive archive will still exist with all the relevant authorship information…

Our project is digitising newspapers and related works for historical analysis, and researching the copyright owner is a necessary process in making this content available for the team to analyse.  I’ve conducted research into copyright history for regional newspaper titles, and found that some are relatively easy to track or have named proprietors that can be tracked through genealogy sites.  The expertise and advice from the Library’s News team has also been really vital, and Findmypast has been very useful in tracking information and lineage but unfortunately I’ve still drawn a blank with some.

A front page from one of the Victorian press directories being used in the project
Mitchell’s press directory, image courtesy of the British Library Board

I’ve recently researched the copyright of Mitchell’s newspaper press directories (see this post for more information). These are published directories listing all available newspapers in a given year to allow companies to make informed decisions about placing advertisements.  They have a wealth of information including circulation and political leanings of newspapers, and include articles from barristers, journalists (both UK & overseas), advertising agents and even a secretary to the London Chamber of Commerce.  Whilst I was somewhat sceptical about expiry dates being close to the current time, I discovered that some of the articles in these directories are only recently out of copyright – and articles in some publications right at the end of our period are still in copyright.  In the directories I’ve researched, the last copyright expiry date is 2044 -Harry E Britain wrote an article for the 1910 edition and only died in 1974. 

It’s very much been a team effort tracking these dates with input from curators and other staff at the British Library! I’ve collaborated with our curators and news reference team on authors I might not be familiar with.  I’m delighted to end this post with a thank you to everyone who have collaborated with me so far in my research!

You can also read more about copyright here on the British Library’s website.

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