Rights management (Spectrum 5.0 consultation draft)

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Use this procedure to manage the rights associated with objects, reproductions and information. Copyright is the commonest of the ‘intellectual property rights’ you may need to deal with, but there are others (including publication rights, trademarks, patents and designs).

You can also use this procedure to manage the data protection rights that may be associated with photographs of living people in some circumstances.

Owning something does not automatically mean you own the copyright or any other associated rights. So the first step in rights management is to work out what rights might apply to a given object, who might hold them, and how long the rights will last. You also need to work out who, if anyone, has rights in any existing reproduction of that object, or whether you can claim copyright (or, potentially, publication right) in any new reproduction you make.

This procedure cannot tell you when material in your collection might be subject to one or more rights, only how to manage rights you have identified through your research. Many situations will be straightforward once you have grasped some basic legal principles; others will be more complex and may rely on law that has not yet been tested in court. Your rights management policy should set out your approach to risk in situations where potential rights holders are unknown or untraceable.

The Collections Trust website has links to resources that can answer many of the most frequently-asked questions about copyright and related rights. If in doubt, you should seek specialist advice and proceed with due diligence and common sense.

The Spectrum standard

You must have a policy covering rights management. This could either be a standalone document or part of a wider collections management policy. Either way, you should include answers to these questions:

  • What steps will you take to establish who holds any rights associated with new acquisitions or loans?
  • If applicable, will you seek to acquire copyright, or a licence to use the material, in new acquisitions?
  • Will you seek to acquire copyright, or a licence to use the material, in reproductions or other work carried out on behalf by volunteers or contractors?
  • What steps will you take to research the rights associated with objects and reproductions already in your collections, and how will you prioritise this work?
  • What is your policy on using material that is likely to be in copyright but whose rights holders are unknown or untraceable?
  • To what extent will you help enquirers make contact with third-party rights holders, and how will you protect any personal data involved?
  • What is your policy on licensing material for which you hold rights for use in different situations (eg commercial publication, re-use of online material)?

You must also have a written procedure that explains the steps to follow when managing rights associated with your collection. Spectrum’s suggested procedure is a useful starting point, and is available as a workflow diagram or as a text file you can edit. However you do it, your own procedure must meet the following minimum requirements:

Minimum requirement Why this is important See (cross-references to be added in final version)
Where known, you record details of rights held by you and others in respect of your objects and reproductions – and reference this information from the relevant catalogue records. You can quickly see from its catalogue record that an object or reproduction is subject to rights – and who the rights holder is.
You document rights associated with new acquisitions, and with new reproductions or other content created or commissioned by you, as soon as possible. You do not build up a new backlog of material with poorly-documented rights information.
You keep rights holder contact details as up-to-date as practical, in line with your data protection policy. You can contact rights holders (or their estates) if you need to, potentially up to 70 years after the original creator dies.
You document all agreements with rights holders that clear you to use their material – and reference these from the relevant catalogue records. You can find written proof of permission to use copyright material if you need it (eg if a dispute arises in future).
Before using objects or reproductions likely to be in copyright, but where the rights holders are unknown or untraceable, you make reasonable enquiries and document these. You can demonstrate due diligence if you decide to use the material anyway.
You document all licences allowing others to use material for which you hold copyright or publication rights – and reference these from the relevant catalogue records. Where applicable, you can control how your rights-protected material is used.
Your system allows you to see when rights or licences have expired. You are able to use material freely as it comes out of copyright.

You do not use material under licence for longer than allowed.


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  1. This is very useful. Is it worth providing additional guidance on digital-only collections? Some museums are receiving donations of digital photographs and are uncertain how to treat them.

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Date created: 2017

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust