On Friday night I had an illuminating Twitter conversation with Will Tattersdill (@faceometer) – a fellow researcher who shares some of my concerns about the new British Library Newspaper Archive. He pointed out an interesting passage in the archive’s terms and conditions:

What you can use the service for:

You can only use the website for your own personal non-commercial use e.g. to research newspaper archives and other archives featured on the website that you are interested in and to purchase goods that we may sell on the website. We are also happy for you to help out other people by telling them about the newspaper archives and other information available on the website and how and where they can be found. However, you must not provide them with copies of any of the newspapers (either an original image of the newspapers or the information on the results page), even if you provide them for free.

It’s easy to brush this off as a classic example of small-print gobbledegook - the  kind of thing we all mindlessly agree to every time we’re forced to update iTunes. But, the more I think about it, the more astonishing this passage seems to be. Are they really suggesting that we can’t show copies of their digital newspapers to other people? Even worse, are they suggesting that we can’t even share the information contained within them? It’s one thing to prevent people from making a profit from these materials, but to try and prohibit us from sharing the fruits of our research with friends, colleagues, and students is truly remarkable. Perhaps I’m jumping the gun here, but does this mean I can’t describe the results of a search in an academic article? Am I prohibited from displaying an a newspaper page via powerpoint in an undergraduate lecture? By posting a screenshot of a (barely legible) article in my review, have I broken their terms and conditions?

I’m not sure. But it’s prompted me to ask an important question: who really owns this material? Almost all of the newspapers in the  BNA are out of copyright and have been preserved by the British Library at the expense of the taxpayer. They belong to us, and we’re all free to copy and quote from them as much as we like. However, it seems that digitised newspapers are an entirely different story. When an out-of-copyright text is scanned, the resulting ‘digital object’ is subject to new copyright protection. More significantly, this copyright isn’t held by the original writers and publishers, but by the library or digitisation company that performs the scans. In legal terms, it seems that we’re not actually browsing the British Library’s newspaper archive but accessing brightsolid’s collection of digitised texts.

This might seem like a minor distinction, but it has important implications. The BNA is intended to replace Colindale as home of the nation’s historical newspaper collections. However, in order to fund this transition, the British Library has allowed a commercial publisher to assume ownership of the new archive’s contents. It’s up to this commercial company to determine how we access the archive and what we can do with its materials.  The past has been privatised. This is brightsolid’s world now – we just live in it.

Edit: a few additional thoughts in the comments.