Copyright for a digital age

A rethinking of intellectual property law is long overdue.

We live in a digital age and therefore we should have a fully functioning knowledge-based economy. Why then do we remain saddled with a copyright framework more suited to the 19th century than the 21st?

At the British Library we estimate that by 2020 75 per cent of all books and journals will be published in digital form.  Add to that the exponential growth of the internet and the explosion of mobile technology, and we see that the world is a dramatically different place to the 1980s (the era of the Betamax and personal cassette recorder) when the last major change to copyright legislation took place. 

If through modernising UK copyright law, barriers preventing lawful digital access to a wide range of information can be lowered, UK researchers will have a new world of resources opened up to them, and the speed of discoveries and innovation will be accelerated. For example Japanese and American researchers – industrial or academic – can "mine" information lawfully from the internet and scientific journals there, but in spite of the explosion in “big data” in the UK we cannot. 

Previous governments over the past decade failed to cover themselves in glory when it came to updating UK copyright law. We had four reviews in six years and very little progress since. It is in this context that the efforts of the current government should be applauded. Last year’s Hargreaves review of intellectual property and growth, commissioned by the prime minister, has provided a roadmap for updating the UK’s outdated copyright laws.  As a package, it aims to make the most of new opportunities provided by technological advancements.

The Library recognises that many groups have a stake in this debate: from authors and publishers to the creative industries, higher education and the general taxpaying public.  Copyright reform is clearly an issue with many dimensions and many competing views. Yet it must reflect the realities of the day and we believe the benefits of reform would serve the widest interests of society and enable growth.

The British Library is looking at ways not only to increase access to our 20th-century collections, but also increase access in a way that meets the demands of 21st-century users.  Digitisation therefore plays a massive part in the Library’s current thinking.

However while the National Library of Norway is making all 20th-century Norwegian publications available online, and in France similar moves are afoot, due to UK copyright law this sort of ambition is impossible for the UK research sector in 2012. The need to get permission item by item (taking on average 4 hours per book) means that it would take a digitisation project of 500,000 items over a thousand years of rights clearance work. Even at the end of this we estimate over 40 per cent of the works would be “orphan”, that is to say the rightsholder would not have been identified or located.

Parliament is currently considering the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which goes some way towards implementing Professor Hargreaves’s recommendations. This includes licensing of orphan works and also introduces Extended Collective Licensing – a way of streamlining rights clearance en masse and a decades old feature of Scandinavian copyright regimes. Both these things are also currently being consulted on by the US Copyright Office. 

The Library has been supporting the legislation with one minor proviso: that in the case of orphan works, we can provide payment to rightsholders if and when they appear, rather than handing money over in advance to a governmental fund that will only rarely be used. 

All this adds up to very good news. It proposes a way forward that clears the path for mass digitisation while providing safeguards and guaranteeing remuneration for copyright holders. 

The government has also promised a future announcement on updating copyright limitations and exceptions – which in the UK are far behind those of other developed nations.  For example, copying sound recordings and film for personal research or preservation reasons is currently not permitted.  Additionally, in the age of “Big Data”, allowing text mining of information you have bought or have legal access to would be hugely beneficial to the research and technology sectors, improving Britain’s international competitiveness greatly.

The Library is hopeful for progress but past experience of delays and derailments means our optimism remains cautious.  By keeping this round of copyright reform alive – and with the level of ambition imagined in Hargreaves – the government could truly unleash the potential of discovery, innovation and growth for everyone.

Benjamin White is head of intellectual property at the British Library.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times