How copyright hinders the preservation of modern, digital culture

A recent Guardian interview with the British Library’s head of digital publications, Giulia Carla Rossi, reveals the problems caused by copyright for those tasked with preserving modern culture. In some respects, the British Library finds itself in a fortunate position, as Rossi explains:

Because we collect under non-print legal deposit [the regulation that grants the British Library a copy of every work published in the UK], the idea is we collect everything that is published.

However, there is a fundamental difference between collecting analogue publications such as books, and those that are born digital. Where the former can be appreciated directly, the latter require a platform of some kind. That might be an operating system, a browser plug in, or specific hardware such as a game console. Rossi warns:

It’s easy to take for granted the technology we have access to right now. Apps and tablets are still very much alive and happening, and people might not realise how fragile some of these formats are, because they are reliant on bespoke software. It’s hard to think far in the future and realise that the kind of technology, and even the way we read, might be very different in a few years’ time.

In practice, that means that as platforms become obsolete and are phased out, they can take with them the digital artefacts that depend on those platforms to be accessed. Technical solutions exist that can help deal with these issues. For example, code stored on old physical formats can be transferred to new ones, and software emulators can help keep digital artefacts alive that might otherwise be impossible to access. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there’s a big problem in the form of copyright law. Generally speaking, technical solutions can only be applied with the permission of the copyright holders. If the latter can’t be found – hard enough with physical books, often impossible for complex pieces of outdated software – these characteristic digital creations may be doomed to disappear. The severity of punishments for copyright infringement are so disproportionate, that researchers and curators are understandably unwilling to risk being taken to court for their preservation work – good intentions are no defence. Moreover, it’s a threat that continues to hang over cultural institutions for decades as a result of copyright’s absurdly long term.

Even when copyright protection on a piece of software or game finally expires after a century or more of being locked away, there is a high probability that they will remain inaccessible. The media on which they are stored may have degraded, or there may be no hardware available on which to run them or to aid programmers in creating emulators.

As Walled Culture the book (free digital versions available) noted with other examples, the problems faced globally by cultural institutions when preserving born-digital cultural artefacts underline the profound mis-match between copyright and the modern world.

Featured image by MrsEllacott.

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