IFLA, and partner organisations have launched an open letter to mark World Intellectual Property Day, 26 April 2020, underlining the need for copyright laws to support, rather than hinder, efforts to safeguard heritage in the face of climate change. Without action, nationally and internatinally, heritage institutions risk beng unable preserve their collections for the future. The letter is open for further endorsements. 

2020 has the potential to be a landmark year in the effort to tackle climate change. Five years on from the Paris Agreement, there is a growing urgency to act to reduce emissions and implement adaptation plans.

In this context, there is growing awareness of the impact of climate change on cultural heritage. This can happen gradually, through changes in temperature that accelerate the degradation of materials or leave institutions and sites underwater. It can also happen suddenly, thanks to an increased chance of fires or extreme weather events.

The loss of heritage can also have economic, social and civic costs. Where collections and sites draw tourists, their destruction reduces visits. Where they act as a reference point for local or group identity, there is the risk of a loss of social capital. Where they are a basis for civic pride, damage can lead to a loss of confidence and attractiveness. As a result, a key element of mitigating the impact of climate change is the effort to preserve as much of our past as possible.                                                   

Why Copyright Matters for Climate Change-Linked Preservation?

Clearly not all irreversible losses can be prevented, but a lot can be done by investing in preservation capacity and comprehensive plans for managing and responding to risks. Alongside training, equipment and buildings, at the heart of these efforts is preservation copying. This is essential to ensure that works survive into the future, even if the original physical support is lost, using tools such as digitisation.. 

Yet taking preservation copies – including though digitisation – implicates copyright. Unless there are clear exceptions allowing this copying without needing to seek authorisations or make playments, libraries, archives and museums can face unacceptable complexity. Decisions about what to preserve can end up being determined more by ease of obtaining clearance, rather than actual need or public interest.

Meanwhile, where works, buildings and other materials have already been lost, recovery is aided by access to descriptions, photographs or other sources which can help with reconstruction and restoration. Accessing and using these, again, is far easier where copyright laws are well adapted.

The Current Situation

Currently, copyright laws currently are not up to the task. In 51 countries around the world, there are no basic preservation exceptions, meaning that any relevant copying is effectively illegal unless a heritage institution gains (and potentially pays for) authorisation.

Furthermore, while 136 countries do have preservation exceptions, 73 limit preservation copying in ways that effectively prevent digitisation. As a result, in 124 countries around the world, digitisation for preservation is not allowed without authorisation. Even those with digital-friendly exceptions may have other restrictions – for example an obligation to wait until the loss of a work is ‘imminent’, or to spend time looking for commercially available copies first.   

Crucially, no countries have laws which allow heritage institutions to work on a truly global scale to form preservation networks. This is because to do so requires legal action at the global level.

The Solution

As their contribution to addressing climate change, copyright decision-makers can make a difference by taking action internationally to facilitate preservation. It is only at the global level that we can realise the potential of digitisation in safeguarding our heritage.

As a result – and as set out in our joint letter, prepared in partnership with Electronic Information for Libraries (eifl), the International Council on Archives (ICA), the International Council on Museums (ICOM), and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) – we strongly recommend that all Member States of the World Intellectual Property Organization, in the context of broader action on climate change, take the steps needed to ensure that all countries have the copyright laws they need to facilitate preservation, including across borders.

In doing so, they will play their part in ensuring that we can continue to enjoy, be inspired by, and draw on our heritage into the future.

Gerald Leitner, IFLA Secretary-General said: ‘Libraries have a key mission to safeguard the past and present for the future. In the face of climate change and its impacts, there is a real urgency to preserve our collections, but we can only do so if the law permits. WIPO and its Member States have both the opportunity – and the duty – to act.’

You can access the letter in English, French and Spanish.

The letter is open for further endorsements using this form. You can read the list of current co-signatories here. Contact us for more information.