Climate Change, Copyright, and Cultural Heritage

Jean Dryden

Jean Dryden

What does copyright have to do with climate change? Linking the two seems tenuous at best. But they are closely connected when it comes to one of our fundamental missions: Preservation.

Archivists have long relied on copying to preserve their holdings. We microfilmed crumbling newspapers. We made reference prints of photographs. Researchers had to use copies instead of heavily used, at-risk originals. Nowadays, we scan paper documents into digital form. We routinely preserve “born digital” records by copying proprietary formats into open source formats, or periodically migrating them to newer versions as hardware and software become obsolete. Equally pressing is the need to reformat audio- and video-tapes as magnetic tape deteriorates and the machines to play them are no longer available.

Copying for preservation clearly raises copyright issues. Copying, even for the public good, requires the permission of the copyright owner (and possibly payment) unless the national copyright law includes an exception permitting preservation copying by archives. More than a quarter of the world’s copyright laws do not permit preservation copying at all.

Climate change, as evidenced by rising sea levels, storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires, threatens irreplaceable archival collections in many countries. One of the most effective ways to safeguard archival heritage is to make digital copies and store them in the cloud or in another place. But some institutions lack the necessary resources, so the copying must be done in another country. Once again, copyright presents a barrier when it comes to crossing borders. Copyright law is a national regime. While Country A’s copyright law may include an exception that permits copying for preservation without permission or payment, the copyright law of Country B (where the copying takes place) may not have a similar exception. Thus, preservation copying in Country B would infringe copyright. The inconsistent patchwork of exceptions in the world’s copyright laws hinders archives’ ability to do preservation copying and to provide access across borders.

We need a binding international treaty that establishes consistent copyright exceptions that will allow archives to fulfil their mission. Only the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) can conclude such a treaty. Climate change puts our documentary heritage at grave risk. Without consistent global exceptions to copyright law, our preservation efforts will fail. WIPO must act now!

Jean Dryden
ICA Representative to WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights