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A Margaret Thatcher Library and Museum?

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It seems I may have spoken too soon in my last post.

In that post I mentioned the international copyright discrepancy which meant that the only public domain work on Margaret Thatcher’s author page was one released by the Federal Government of the United States.  Modern US Presidents each have a federally operated library making such historical materials available.  It seems like there may be hope of a British equivalent after all. (NB: Technically, there is one already, the Gladstone Library in Wales, but they are rare and I don’t believe that one is quite the same thing.)

A Margaret Thatcher Library and Museum Project has recently been announced.  It was inspired by and will be modelled on the Ronald Reagan Library in California and, if it goes ahead, it will set up a similar institution in central London.  It was the idea of Donal Blaney, chief executive of Conservative Way Forward, in 2009 and is supported by members of the Conservative Party (including some secretaries of state, so this might actually happen).

The Thatcher Library is currently only proposed, although it appears to have significant backing and funding already.  I have not seen any confirmation about the library’s contents yet.  The US libraries are run as part of the National Archives & Records Administration, while the UK equivalent will be a private foundation, separate from the UK’s National Archives (although pre-Hoover US libraries are in a similar state).  How that affects the material from Margaret Thatcher’s premiership held by the Archives is unknown; The Times suggests that the Library may hold facsimiles.  There is also the Thatcher Archive at Cambridge University and The Margaret Thatcher Foundation, which cover similar ground.

It also remains to be seen just how much like a US presidential library this institution will be.  That all federal government documents are in the public domain in that country is a result of SCOTUS case law and eventual formal codification in US law.  There is nothing similar in the UK and there is no guarantee that the Thatcher Library will emulate this aspect of the US system.

Nevertheless, this could be an important step forward for the open culture movement in the United Kingdom.  Maybe one day Wikimedia UK will even be arranging a Wikimedian in Residence there and Wikisource will finally have a fuller bibliography on Margaret Thatcher’s author page.

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Margaret Thatcher and the oddities of copyright

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Portrait photograph of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher in 1981 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The recent, sad death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has highlighted an odd juxtaposition of international copyright laws. (Yes, this is yet another copyright post.) Her author page received 95 page views on 8th April, which is about the same traffic it usually gets in an entire month. However, the page only links to two works, one of which I have now tagged as a copyright violation (her famous “the lady’s not for turning” conference speech, which is probably under copyright until the early 2080’s).

The somewhat odd situation being highlighted is due to the other work on that page. I transcribed and added it not long ago. It’s a memcon, a memorandum of a conversation, with President Gerald Ford before Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. This document was made available by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, part of the American presidential library system. It is in the public domain because all works by officers of the Federal Government of the United States, made as part of their official duties, are in the public domain under United States law. So, it would appear that the only way to read any of the works of Margaret Thatchers, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, on Wikisource is via the government of the United States of America.

Fortunately, there is also a link to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, which does have a complete, online collection of all of her speeches, interviews, etc. So they are not lost or hidden but they aren’t free. It is not necessarily a problem, bar potentially limiting distribution and preventing things like crowd-sourced translation. It is, nevertheless, still a very odd position in which to be.

The internal cost of copyright illiteracy

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More so than most other Wikimedia projects, except perhaps Commons, copyright is a big deal for Wikisource.  Obviously we can only host public domain or freely licensed works; which is generally understood.  The problem comes from copyright law itself not being generally understood.  (I can’t claim to be especially knowledgeable about copyright myself but I have picked up a lot as part of the Wikisource community.)

Many people apparently believe certain works must or should be out of copyright without checking or they do check but miss some detail of copyright law.  Wikisource as a project can deal with this by deletion but it still impacts volunteers.

A recent example is the science fiction short story “Time Pawn” by Philip K. Dick, a story that was published in 1954 in an issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.  Under the law of the time, the initial copyright period ended in 1982 when it could have been renewed for another period.  As this didn’t happen it would seem to have entered the public domain.  However, while the short story was not renewed, the issue of the magazine itself was, under renewal registration number RE0000112616 in January 1982 by CBS Publications.  It has been established, in Goodis v. United Artists Television, Inc., “that where a magazine has purchased the right of first publication under circumstances which show that the author has no intention to donate his work to the public, copyright notice in the magazine’s name is sufficient to obtain a valid copyright on behalf of the beneficial owner, the author or proprietor.”  Lacking information to the contrary, we must assume that this applies to Dick’s story; the renewal of the copyright on Thrilling Wonder Stories also renewed the copyright on “Time Pawn” so, unless it was reassigned, CBS currently hold the rights on the story until about 2050.

The real issue here is that another user, not the uploader, completed the proofreading of the entire story in good faith.  At which point it was noticed by yet another user and rightly marked it as a copyright violation.  Now that good-faith user’s effort is wasted and they may be permanently disillusioned with the project.  Everyone loses.

This is actually partly my fault.  I noticed the upload and I tagged a separate, similar upload (“Small Town“) for deletion for the same reason but I didn’t connect the two.

I’m not sure what else can be done to prevent things like this from happening.  Both Wikisource and Commons already have help pages on copyright that should explain the problem.  Constant vigilance (and better awareness on my part, at least) may be the only solution, but that is unlikely to be foolproof.

Note 1: “Small Town” was published in Amazing Stories, which hardly ever had its copyrights renewed, in the very first issue to do so.  Conversely, Thrilling Wonder Stories, along with the entire “Thrilling…” stable of magazines, apparently had consistent copyright renewals across the board.  Ironically, that isn’t true under its earlier incarnation as simply Wonder Stories, a pulp also created by Hugo Gernsback after he lost control of Amazing Stories.

Note 2: A later version of “Time Pawn” (published in Startling Stories, Summer 1955) appears to have been renewed as well, under RE0000190631 in 1983 by Dick’s children.  This may or may not be relevant; a court could declare it close enough.