EU legal framework

IRIS Plus 2013-5: Audiovisual Heritage 2.0

Author: Catherine Jasserand, Institute for Information Law (IViR), University of Amsterdam

Published: 12/12/2013

"...let us save what remains;
not by vaults and locks which fence
them from the public eye and use
in consigning them to the waste of time,
but by such a multiplication of copies,
as shall place them beyond
the reach of accident."
Thomas Jefferson

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria is a symbol of knowledge lost forever. Although the facts about this historical event are not entirely clear, the myth of a centralised source of knowledge ravaged by the flames remains in the collective conscience as a reminder of the fragility of cultural heritage.

Many centuries after its alleged destruction, the dream of a digital library of Alexandria seems to have entered the realm of the possible. Indeed, digital technologies allow for the inexpensive reproduction and transmission of text, audio and video content. In theory, a single website could harbour digital copies of all works available in public libraries and museums around the world. A mouse click away. There are already some prominent examples of projects which aim at achieving this objective: think of Google Books or the Europeana project.

This dream is permeated by what could be called the "Internet Zeitgeist", an illusion of total and free access to information and entertainment. Paraphrasing Queen's song, we want it all and want it now. But this utopian vision of perfect accessibility to our cultural heritage has to undergo a necessary reality check. First of all, preservation costs money. Digitisation requires time, equipment, skills and manpower. Server space and bandwidth have to be provided for. And then there is copyright: works that are still protected cannot be given access to or even be digitised without the authorisation of rightsholders. Given that the copyright term of protection in the EU is seventy years after the death of the last surviving author, this excludes most of the works made in the twentieth century! On top of that, many of those works which are still protected are "orphaned", that is, their rightsholders are unknown or cannot be located, and hence they cannot even be asked to permit the preservation and making available of their works.

This article describes the main lines of the recently amended Directive on the re-use of public sector information. This Directive provides "a minimum set of rules governing the re-use and the practical means of facilitating re-use of existing documents held by public sector bodies of the member states." The Directive does not regulate access to such information, which remains a competence of member states, but focuses on the economic aspects of re-use of information and encourages the member states to make as much information available for re-use as possible.