Sound barriers: Oral history, copyright, and the OHRRG experience at the State Library of Western Australia

ALIA Library

Bowen, Adrian

ALIA Information Online 2015 Conference, 2-5 February 2015, Sydney: at the edge.
Introduction: From 2010 to 2013 the State Library of Western Australian undertook a project to digitise its significant collection of oral histories. One of the key outcomes of this project was to make digitised oral histories available for access online; however copyright concerns were a major barrier to this outcome. Oral history as a medium is unique among the original materials collected by libraries, in that:

  • Copyright in oral histories is not clear-cut, and different communities seem to have different understandings of this; and
  • Oral histories are often bound by additional limitations, such as access and embargo agreements, informed consent practices, and privacy concerns

The purpose of this paper is to explore the challenges of copyright and oral history, and share how SLWA addressed these challenges to make digitised oral histories available online.
Methods: Detailed analysis and desktop research was undertaken, into SLWA’s oral history collection, associated documents and existing agreements as well as relevant legislation, case law, and existing industry/community practices. Drawing on this, innovative approaches to the copyright issues inherent in digitising oral histories were developed, including:

  • Policy on risk management, the interpretation of legacy agreements, and the public benefit in making materials available online.
  • Oral history-specific protocols on when further permissions are or are not required.
  • Protocols for orphan works, and notice and take-down procedures.
  • Approaches for navigating the multiple interpretations of copyright in oral histories that exist within the community.

Results: It was found that there is uncertainty around rights in oral history recordings, in both a legal and practical sense, and a variety of approaches and understandings within the industry and community. While a challenge, this was not a barrier to achieving the outcomes of the project. The project’s target for making interviews available online was met in 2013, and additional interviews continue to be released to the public. As a result, the voices and memories of Western Australians dating back to 1875, including artists, intellectuals, business people, immigrants, soldiers, families and ordinary people, whose stories are often lost to history, are now available online for everyone in the world.
Conclusions: The uncertainty around copyright in oral history is inconvenient, but it is not insurmountable. Through an understanding of the history of your collection, planning, and a consistent approach, it is very possible to tackle the copyright barriers to making oral history interviews available. There also seems to be great support for libraries to make oral histories available – nearly every rights-holder contacted for permission gave it without hesitation.
Relevance: Copyright and intellectual property concerns are a major barrier for any mass digitisation or digital collecting project. This is particularly true with oral history, where there is uncertainty around where copyrights exist, who owns them, and what can therefore be done with the oral history. Understanding and overcoming these challenges extends the boundaries of what can be achieved in providing access to content for clients.

Deakin, ACT: Australian Library and Information Association