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British Library and Wikisource: copyrights and permissions

I’m writing this post to explain as best as I can the current situation regarding the legal situation over unambigulously out-of-copyright texts in the British Library and the possibility of making public domain reproductions of them for release, say, on sites like Project Gutenberg or Wikisource.

I came to looking into this because of the difficulty of finding sources for the history of Ethical culture, a forerunner of modern day humanist or freethought movements. I had a look on the British Library Integrated Catalogue and found a lot of sources: I put the list up on the Ethical culture talk page. But as a lot of these are out of copyright, it makes sense to put them up on Wikisource.

But here’s the rub: the British Library forbid you from making scans of BL materials. That’s fine. There are problems: basically, for fragile materials, it is right that they insist on their people doing the copying. But there are problems with this: firstly, the cost is quite high. Making copies of BL materials requires payment of a fee that can be quite substantial. And the BL then derive a new copyright from the modified work and require you to pay a license to them to reuse it. Fine if you are a Hollywood producer or someone like that. But if you are trying to collect material that is out-of-copyright to include in an archive like Wikisource or Project Gutenberg, that’s not very useful.

I raised the question on the Wikisource Scriptorium about this: could we potentially make a non-image based copy. That is, someone could request an out-of-copyright item from the British Library, then go into the BL with a laptop and make a verbatim copy of the text and post it on Wikisource. Wikisource have one minor problem with this: they require that another Wikisource user does a proofread of the source. With a digital file of the original text, that’s easy: someone else looks at the DjVu file and compares it with the text copy. But where the original is on a piece of paper in a reading room, that’s not so easy.

But that’s not an issue I’m really that bothered about: that is a solveable issue. You can have two people with reader passes both go to the BL and check a source over before publication.

The copyright issue remains as does another issue: the conditions of use, specifically §25 of the conditions of use.

Copies of Library collections must only be made using Library copying facilities.

I phoned the British Library today to try and resolve this issue. I asked them whether making a verbatim text copy of an out-of-copyright work onto a laptop or into a notebook would result in them claiming a new copyright existed for the copy: they answered that no, this would not be an issue.

Secondly, I asked whether or not doing so would infringe §25 of the Conditions of Use or any other restriction placed on registered Readers. They also said that this would not be an issue. They said that by ‘Copies of Library collections’ they meant photographic/reprographic type copies rather than verbatim text transcriptions.

They did note that when people make such a copy, it would be very useful if they could give attribution to the British Library just in terms of the provenance of the work. For Wikisource, this is not an issue. On the talk page for texts posted on Wikisource, one is asked to provide details of the provenance of the work. I’m in the middle of transferring Evelyn Underhill’s famous book on Mysticism to Wikisource, and it is a public domain work from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library - you can see the attribution here. I assured the guy that experienced Wikimedians are about the most anal people you can find on matters of copyright, licensing and attribution. And, really, if you drew a Venn diagram of Wikimedians, British Library Readers and people willing to spend hours typing up obscure out-of-copyright works, the intersection of the three are probably going to be so nerdy and obsessive that providing comprehensive attribution will not be an issue.

I am not a lawyer, but it doesn’t seem possible for them to assert a copyright interest in a work that has been copied from a public domain text that they give you access to as a reader. I felt it was important to get clarification of the intent of §25.

It would be useful to get clarification of this from a lawyer: does this clarification suffice? Could I – or other Wikimedians, or the Wikimedia Foundation – be liable to a legal challenge from the British Library on the grounds of breaching the terms of use of the library by making verbatim text copies of these materials and publishing them?

Given that I have now made a good-faith effort to work out what the legal situation is, unless I am advised otherwise by either the British Library or by someone with expertise in this area, I plan to go ahead in the near future and start making and releasing public domain text copies of public domain works in the British Library. I encourage others to do likewise unless we hear of good reasons not to.

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