An empty display case at the National Library of Scotland (image courtesy National Library of Scotland, via Flickr)

An empty display case at the National Library of Scotland (image courtesy National Library of Scotland, via Flickr)

Museums and libraries in the United Kingdom are demanding copyright reform by leaving exhibits and display cases conspicuously empty in protest. The institutions are taking a stand against a law that prevents them from showing millions of unpublished documents, particularly those dating from World War I. The campaign has been dubbed “Catch 2039” by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) because, under current British copyright law, any works by unknown authors or by authors who were born before 1969 and that were not published by August 1, 1989, are subject to copyright through 2039. According to a 2009 report cited by CILIP, as much as 50% of documents currently held in British archives are orphan works. The Imperial War Museums alone count some 1.75 million orphan works in the collections, according to CILIP.

An empty display case at the Leeds University Library Reading Room (image courtesy Leeds University, via Flickr) (click to enlarge)

Among the institutions taking part in the Britain-wide protest are the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Leeds University Library. Other groups, including the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance and the Collections Trust, have pledged their support for “Catch 2039.” Many of them came up against the copyright provision while searching for archival documents to display on the occasion of this year’s WWI centennial.

Though a recent licensing initiative by the British government would allow institutions to reproduce and display orphan works for which provenance research has been carried out and a fee has been paid, the organizations behind the 2039 campaign are calling for the lifting of copyrights on orphan artworks, letters, and engravings 70 years after the author’s death. By those terms, the unpublished wartime correspondence of a military nurse who served during WWI and died in 1935 would have been available for public display beginning in 2005.

Institutions taking part in the protest are including descriptions of the missing documents along with a text that reads:

We would have liked to show you a letter from a First World War soldier here. But due to current copyright laws we are unable to display the original. Those laws mean that some of the most powerful diaries and letters in our collections cannot be displayed.

All that we ask is that copyright law is changed so that the duration of copyright in certain unpublished works lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years, rather than until the end of the year 2039.

This would help us to give voice to more of the men, women and children who lived through some of the most turbulent times in our history. We want to tell their stories. Join the campaign to Free Our History by signing a petition at and by tweeting your support using #catch2039.

h/t The Art Newspaper

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...