The Future Library and Future Copyright

Over the weekend, I stumbled across an article in The Age about The Future Library: Why you face a big wait to read any of the books.  The Future Library is a public artwork by Scottish artist – Katie Paterson comprised of four key components:

  • A forest of trees growing over the next 100 years just outside Oslo
  • One commissioned writer every year for 100 years contributing a text to a collection to be published in an anthology of books made from the paper produced by the forest of trees in 2114
  • A room designed by the artist which will house and hold in trust the growing collection of unpublished and unread manuscripts
  • A Limited edition artwork – a certificate that entitles the buyer to one complete set of the texts printed on the paper made from the trees after they are fully grown and cut down in 2114[1]

The Age article was an interview with novelist David Mitchell, who was the second author to contribute to the project.  Margaret Atwood being the first.  Icelandic novelist, Sjon, is the third artist and will contribute his work in 2017.I am totally intrigued by this project – imagine writing a text with the intention of not allowing anyone to read it for 100 years.  Although the “embargo” period will be less for later texts added to the collection.

Of course, being the copyright nerd that I am, I couldn’t help but ponder the copyright challenges for this project, particularly when I read this paragraph in the Age article:”The future does bring one benefit, though. Mitchell realised he could quote as many song lyrics as he liked without having to pay, because in 100 years’ time they’d be in the public realm. “So I’ve quoted from a Beatles song.””  I had a little *LOL* and thought “Ah, famous last words!”

There is no guarantee that the Beatles or any other current song lyric will be in the public domain in 100 years time.  Copyright owners and rights holders have successfully lobbied in the past for copyright to be extended.  In 2005, the Australian copyright term was extended from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years, meaning no works will come out of copyright under Australian law until at least 2025.  Given that many copyright owners and rights holders are large corporations – they have a vested interest in keep their catalogues in copyright for a long as possible – it is likely that they will continue to lobby for copyright to be extended and extended and extended, ensuring no works enter the public domain.  Even now, there are suggestions that copyright should be lengthened to life plus 100 years.  On the flip side, suggestions by the Productivity Commission in their recent review of IP, that the duration or copyright should be shortened have been meet with howls of protest from authors, creators and copyright owners. As a result, David Mitchell (or his heirs) may well end up still having to pay the Beatles’ heirs to use their lyrics.

But what are some of the other copyright issues?

The contributed texts are all unpublished and will remain unpublished until 2114, and are all protected under copyright law.  Under current Australian copyright law, and in many other jurisdictions, unpublished material remains in copyright indefinitely until it is published when the copyright clock starts ticking.  Once published, the work becomes subject to the normal term of copyright, which is currently life plus 70 years or 70 years after the year of publication if the work is first published after the author’s death.  So under the current rules, the contributed works should all still be in copyright.  However, there have been suggestions as part of copyright reform that the duration for unpublished material should be the same as for published material – the people at the Productivity Commission were very busy little bees when reviewing copyright!  If this change was implemented, by the time the texts were published in 2114, if the author had died before 2044, the work could be out of copyright.  The work would enter into the public domain as soon as it was published.  Many people would argue that this would be a good thing – the work could be freely shared and adapted and built upon. However, I can’t help but wonder if the authors’ involved would share the same view?

Let’s assume the opposite – what if any changes to copyright between now and 2114 strengthen and lengthen protection rather than shorten and reduce it?  As a result, the works all remain in copyright and will continue to be once published in 2114.  This will pose some challenges to Future Library Trust who are responsible for looking after the texts for the next 100 years and then publishing them in 2114.  Presumably some sort of copyright agreement was entered into the authors?  Did they transfer copyright?  Did they waive their copyright to make it easier to manage the work in future?  Did they adopt a licensing scheme such as Creative Commons (and if so, can we still guarantee that that licensing scheme will still be valid in 2114)?  Did any agreement take into account potential changes to copyright and what impact it might have on The Future Library.

It is likely that copyright will change over the next 100 years and whether it is strengthened or reduced, any changes will potentially impact The Future Library.  Currently, there is no information on their website about how copyright is the works will be managed. Just how exactly copyright will change is an unknown.  There is always a balancing act between protecting author’s rights and ensuring that the community can access and use copyright material. So if you are keeping an eye on The Future Library to see which authors contribute to the project, spare a thought for copyright.


1 2016 Press release – The Future Library

Image Trees by jingoba  From