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Copyright Lawyers Agree: Complicated Statutes Can Confound as Well as Protect

While most copyright, trademark and patent laws are about protecting the interests of artists, inventors, scientists, or businesses, sometimes, it’s the public itself that bears the brunt of injury from complex statutes that don’t seem to benefit anyone. At least, that’s what this article in Ars Technica argues, highlighting how copyright lawyers meet with dead ends in the United Kingdom under new laws that protect unpublished works at a price of denying the public access to priceless parts of history.

In a bold statement, “empty display cases or blank pieces of paper where historical cultural artifacts should be” were put forth by museums and libraries in the UK last week as they protested exceptionally restrictive legislation that regulates unpublished works. Joining a campaign called “Free Our History,” museums and their own copyright lawyers contend that the copyright laws are the most restrictive in Europe, and as a result, citizens of their country are denied the opportunity to access “such important historical material” such as “a young girl’s note to her soldier father during WWI.”

The complaint by the museums centers around the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) copyright licensing scheme that tried to fix problems for “orphan works,” or “creative works where the rights holder can’t be identified or traced.” But what the BIS didn’t account for is that millions of unpublished works aren’t addressed by the new law, affecting museums and libraries heavily, who can no longer display such documents or artifacts until “the end of 2039, regardless of how old the work is,” copyright lawyers emphasize. Any unpublished work created before 1989 falls under this statute.

The UK government hasn’t officially responded to the “Free Our History” protest generating substantial interest through media attention and an online petition at, but they have said they’ll put their heads together and issue some sort of “consultation on reducing the duration of copyright in certain unpublished works and the 2039 rule.” Meanwhile, the BIS “has told museums they can display thee entities that would be in these empty cases,” but most museums are showing blank cases for effect, trying to send home their point.

The museums and their campaign to provide access to the public led by citizen advocates and copyright lawyers in the UK is “calling on the UK government to reduce the term of copyright protection in certain unpublished works from the year 2039 to the author’s lifetime plus 70 years, as per provisions laid out in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (ERRA) 2013,” according to their press release. Under the ERRA would library and museum archives, though considered “unpublished” stores of items, would be able to provide public access to important historical material through exhibits.

Patents and trademarks, and copyrights, too, are governed somewhat differently in the U.S., where intellectual property lawyers like Cam Tu Dang reference the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as a register and decision maker on cases of infringement. The UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) holds sway in Britain, and the UK government’s consultation should be decided by December 12, 2014 as it receives ongoing public pressure from libraries’ and museums’ blank cases.

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