Lest We Forget


Today is Remembrance Day.  The date is significant as at 11am on 11 November 1918, there was a cease fire to allow the Germans and the Allied Troops to negotiate a peace settlement which brought an end to World War I after four years of fighting and millions of deaths.  Since 1919, we have observed Remembrance Day to honour the sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought in that conflict.

So what does Remembrance Day have to do with copyright?  Well, hearing about the memorial service being held at the Australian War Memorial today, made me think about all of the documents and material that the AWM holds related to World War I.  There is considerable interest in this material, not just from academic researchers, but also from authors and historians and ordinary members of the general public, who are interested in what it would have been like for their grandparents or great grandparents.  As such the AWM is keen to make as much of their collection available to as many people as possible, including via the internet for people who are not able to get to the AWM in person.  Much of this material, such as correspondence and diaries, is still protected by copyright, even though it is very old.  In many cases, these letters and diaries are unpublished which means that copyright lasts indefinitely.  Even where the author has been dead for more than 70 years because of the way copyright works, unpublished material is still protected.  This can make it difficult for the AWM to preserve and digitise material, as they need to get permission from either the author (if they are still alive), or their family (if the author is deceased).  Getting permission is not easy, as it not always possible to identify or locate the author/copyright owner.  As a result, material that could be made available online and therefore readily accessible to researchers and the wider community, is not able to be shared.

The University of Melbourne Archives holds many collections of historical material relating to World War One. These collections include original items from Australian soldiers, nurses and doctors at the various fronts, as well as business, union and personal papers revealing the situation on the home front. For example, material samples of Australian Army uniforms in a textile business collection; the Bendigo anti-conscription campaign committee minutes; correspondence from Vera Scantlebury Brown as a young female assistant-surgeon in England; and souvenirs including poppies picked on the Western Front in 1916 and still intact as part of the Ray Jones collection. We have also hosted exhibitions and events using these collections, including a recent event for the Friends of the Baillieu Library – “The Lost Soldiers of Fromelles

The issue of copyright in unpublished works is not just a problem for the AWM and the University of Melbourne. Almost all libraries, museums and archives  have collections of unpublished material that they would like to make available online but cannot due to copyright.  If unpublished material was subject to the same duration of copyright as published material, many of these collections would be out of copyright and could be made freely available to anyone who wanted to view them.  The length of duration of copyright in unpublished material is further complicated by the fact that it can be difficult to identify or locate the copyright owner – making the material ‘orphaned’.

So what can we do about this?  In it’s review of intellectual property, the Productivity Commission recommended removing perpetual copyright protection for unpublished works, bringing unpublished into line with published works.  If this change was implemented, copyright in some unpublished works would expiry and these works would move into the public domain.  This would mean that libraries, museums and archives would be able to make more of their collections of unpublished materials available digitally.  Making content available digitally means it’s easier for people to find and often breathes new life into the work.  It helps to keep our shared history, culture and memories alive.

The Productivity Commission’s final report has been submitted to the Government and will be tabled in Parliament.  So far, the Government has not yet responded to the recommendations but changing the duration of copyright in unpublished works is one that we hope they accept. Making access to the letters and diaries of WWI diggers easier will help us to remember their sacrifices and keep their memories alive.

Image Credit – 03-Poppy-Roll-of-Honour by Bernard Oh  CC BY-ND