3.231 British copyright law (85)

Mon, 10 Jul 89 21:33:23 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 231. Monday, 10 Jul 1989.

Date: Mon, 10 Jul 89 17:07 BST
From: Oxford Text Archive <ARCHIVE@VAX.OXFORD.AC.UK>
Subject: A note on copyright

This is a brief statement of my current understanding of British
copyright law, or rather those parts of it which relate to the
Text Archive's concerns. It has been obtained at considerable
expense, both financial and intellectual, with the help of the
University's solicitor and Judith Proud's dogged research, but I
accept full responsibility for what follows (i.e. it may be

There is no such thing as copyright (singular). The law provides
for a number of rights (plural) with respect to a published
literary work. These are:-
1. The author's right in the content of the text. This applies to
any literary or artistic work and it lasts for 50 years after the
author's death.
2. In the case of a published work, the publisher's right in the
typographic arrangement, presentation, look and feel (if you
will) of any work. This applies for 25 years, and is renewable
every time the publisher produces a new edition.
3. In the case of an electronic work, where significant
intellectual effort has gone into the process of tagging or
otherwise transforming or editing the text, the creator of that
electronic form may have rights in that.
4. There is also in French law a concept of `moral right'
additional to (1): this is the author's right not to have
inferior adaptations of a work passed off as authentic. It has
not yet entered English law, but may do so.

For any text any combination of the above rights may exist and
therefore be infringed by the act of copying. `Copying'
includes:- transcribing all the words of a text or substantial
portions of it (infringes 1); transcribing instructions
sufficient to mimic the appearance and content of a published
text, transmitting by FAX etc. (infringes 2); making unlicensed
electronic copies (infringes 3). You can mix and match
infringements ad lib.

Further to complicate affairs, any of these rights can of course
be passed on to others, licensed for particular purposes etc.
etc. And of course there will be copyrights in some parts of
texts, (notes appendixes, illustrations etc) independent of other

Previously unpublished texts are treated rather strangely in
British law. When a text (e.g. a mediaeval manuscript) which
would otherwise be in the public domain is published for the
first time, then its first publishers have rights in it for 50
years from the date of first publication. This right is abolished
in the 1989 Copyright Act, but with the proviso that all works
currently so protected are given a last 50 years (from 1989) to

With reference to scanning texts, it's my understanding that the
simple process of making a text machine-readable confers no
rights at all on the owner of the resulting electronic text, any
more than making a xerox copy or a manual transcript would. To
own electronic rights in something you have to have created
something analagous to an original work.

So, my answer to "Chris" Koch is to say that yes, alas, your
administrators are quite correct. You may not make electronic
versions of work not in the public domain without permission
from the authors (or whoever owns their rights). And such
electronic texts as you make from public domain texts will
themselves be in the public domain unless you put a lot of work
into them.

As this posting is already rather long, I'll defer discussion of
how the Text Archive intends to continue functioning now that we
finally understand the law until another time...

Lou Burnard, Oxford Text Archive