Monday, 18 April 2011

Copyright is slippery stuff

It can be tricky to work out who has what rights, as a report in The Guardian last week makes clear. The BBC had to halt the planned transmission of a new television adaptation of John Braine's novel, Room at the Top, after a problem emerged over the broadcasting rights. Hardly surprising that this sort of thing can happen, given that copyright is not a type of property that is recorded on a register. As the article explains, copyright owners can hand out licences and options as the mood takes them, and it becomes impossible to work out whether the rights you think you've acquired now are actually worth a thing.

Perhaps the surprising thing is that this doesn't happen more often. In the US, copyright owners and their heirs are given a chance to take back rights that might have been unwisely alienated at some time in the past (see this article by my good friend Lloyd Jassin). The Intellectual Property Foresight Forum has suggested to the Hargreaves Review that there should be a 10-year reversion rule so copyright comes back to the author or his or her heirs. The Forum's paper (written by Prof Martin Kretschmer) observes that a 10-year investment horizon for the cultural industries is quite generous. It certainly seems as if it might have saved the BBC some problems.

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