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Copyright & Risk: Scoping the Wellcome Digital Library Project

wp10CREATe Working Paper No. 10

Victoria Stobo with Ronan Deazley and Ian G. Anderson (2013)


Copyright & Risk: Scoping the Wellcome Digital Library is a comprehensive case study which aims to assess the merits of the risk-managed approach to copyright clearance adopted by the Wellcome Library (WL) in the course of their pilot digitisation project Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics.

Whilst the WL clearly identifies as a library, as a collecting institution it extends from books and periodicals to include archives and manuscripts, art, the moving image and sound associated with the biomedical sciences and the medical humanities.[1] In this case study we consider the digitisation of both library (books) and archive material as part of the Codebreakers project, although our principal interest lies with the archive digitisation strand.

This report assesses the merits of the WL’s approach to copyright compliance by:

  • Introducing the WL and the Codebreakers mass digitisation project
  • Outlining the copyright challenges presented by the mass-digitisation effort
  • Discussing the risk management methods used by the WL in determining which rights should be cleared
  • Examining the results of the risk-managed copyright clearance process

As a result of this analysis, the research aims to:

  • Compare the Wellcome experience on Codebreakers to rights clearance exercises attempted by other cultural heritage institutions
  • Provide policy makers with useful data and insights to inform the debate on copyright exceptions for cultural heritage institutions
  • Discuss the relevance of this approach for other UK archive institutions

Prior to the preparation of this case study, CREATe published a working paper in March 2013[2], reviewing current and proposed changes to UK copyright law, and specifically exceptions provided for libraries and archives. This was further extended by a review of available literature on the digitisation of archival and library collections for publication online, contextualized with specific examples.

Existing literature reveals that rights clearance procedures impose prohibitive burdens on cultural institutions, through the cost of staff time and training in both diligent search and the process of contacting rightsholders.[3] It also indicates that in most cases, the results of rights clearance processes are unsatisfactory: either copyright holders cannot be identified and traced; or those who are contacted, do not respond to permission requests. Archives, in contrast to libraries, have the added complication of dealing with larger and more varied collections of material, the majority of which has been created for non-commercial purposes; this material is often unpublished at the point of deposit with the archive, and typically includes higher proportions of orphan works (when compared with traditional library collections).[4]

Documented examples of archival rights clearance projects are scarce, and where studies do exist, they have generally been conducted at a large-scale level, and do not contain sufficient detail to enable in-depth analysis of the rights clearance process.[5] Anna Vuopala’s excellent Orphan Works study[6] includes examples of rights clearance projects at 19 institutions, and focuses almost exclusively on the time and cost required to clear rights, which is extremely useful, but leaves out other valuable details about the right clearance process: for example, the number of rightsholders’ contact details found; the refusal rates and reasons given for refusal at each institution; and the number of rightsholders who do not respond to permission requests.

In general, there is a lack of detailed evidence concerning rights clearance in archival digitisation, and especially in relation to projects that employ risk-management strategies in a sector which is known to be highly risk averse. The WL was chosen as an appropriate subject for this case study given the scale of their digitisation aims, and their use of a risk managed approach to copyright compliance.

Codebreakers, as a digitisation project, was never designed to facilitate a study of the process of rights clearance – by the time data collection for the Copyright and Risk Project began, Codebreakers was entering its final stages, with the official launch of the project website taking place in February 2013. As a result, semi-structured interviews were chosen as the most effective method of obtaining data about the project. Interviews were conducted with key project staff at the WL as well as with staff from five partner archives involved in delivering the Codebreakers project.

The semi-structured format of the interviews was chosen for its flexibility; a list of questions was chosen, but given the length of the interviews, it was possible to divert from these questions and follow up on unexpected lines of enquiry raised by the interview subjects. Also, by working from a set list of questions, it was still possible to collate the answers to specific questions, thereby producing some quantifiable data. The questions were generated through a discussion of the aims of the project, and through consultation of other similar projects: specifically Jean Dryden’s doctoral research on the practices of Canadian repositories when making their archival material available online.[7]

The interviews covered five specific areas: the respondents’ role within their place of work; their role working on the Codebreakers project; the rights clearance challenges posed by the project; the development of policies and practices over the timeframe of the project; and finally, the respondents’ own views and experience of copyright, divorced from an institutional perspective.

Using this method of enquiry, respondents were asked about policies and practices mandated by the institutions they work for, but also for their own opinions as professionals, built up though work experience, education and training. By encouraging the respondents to reflect on their own experience, it was also possible to use the ‘snowball’ technique to tease out pointers to documentation and other resources used by the respondents, not only in relation to this project, but to their experience working on others as well.

Once completed, the interviews were transcribed to provide usable data. The transcriptions were used for a variety of purposes. Responses to specific questions were logged to give quantifiable results. Where respondents gave specific examples of practices, or policy changes, these are used as evidence in the text of this report. As a result of interviewing respondents at the Wellcome, project documentation was also made available for inclusion in this case study. This material takes two forms: policy documents which were circulated and updated as the project took place; and an internal report produced towards the end of the project, which includes a variety of statistics and more general lessons learned. The documentation has been discussed in the text of the report and examples of specific documents are available in the Appendix.

This combination of anecdotal evidence, combined with results and project documentation, has allowed us to trace the processes by which the WL has used risk management to achieve their digitisation objectives.


[1] The Wellcome Library Collection Development Policy is available at [Accessed: 5 Dec 2013]
[2] Deazley, R., and Stobo, V. (2013) Archives and Copyright: Risk and Reform. Working Paper. CREATe / University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK.

[3] Ibid

[4] For any work, created by an author who died before 1 January 1969, which was unpublished as of 1 August 1989 (when the CDPA 1988 came into force), the duration of copyright will last until 31 December 2039. CDPA, Schedule 1, s.12(4).

[5] Vuopala, A., “Assessment of the Orphan works issue and Costs for Rights Clearance” (May 2010), available at:  and Korn, N., (2009) “In from the Cold” JISC & The Collections Trust, available at:  [Accessed: 1 Sep 2013]
[6] Vuopala, A., (2010) – See page 39, and the example of the National Archives ‘Moving Here’ project. 45 rightsholders refused permission, but information regarding the reasons for refusal is not available. As to the rightsholders who could not be identified in relation to 385 documents – it is not made clear whether contact details could not be found for these individuals, or if they were but did not respond to permission requests.

[7] Dryden, J., “Copyright issues in the selection of archival material for internet access” (2008) Archival Science 123-47

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