Library Stat of the Week #15: Only 30% of countries’ copyright laws allow for digital preservation. None allow it freely across borders

Today is World Copyright Day, providing an opportunity to reflect on the influence that copyright has on the way we create, share and access information.

Copyright offers extensive powers to rightholders, including over many activities that cause no harm to original creators, and indeed help new ones, or achieve public interest goals.

This is why it is so important to have exceptions and limitations. These have been a part of international copyright law from the beginning, for activities such as quotation or news reporting.

One activity that requires such an exception is preservation copying. Libraries and other heritage institutions need to make and use copies as part of their mission to safeguard the past for the future. This can be because the original materials are weak or unstable, or because there is a risk of disaster, either natural or man-made.

Without an exception, libraries are obliged to try and seek permissions, which risks being hard, expensive, or simply impossible. This can mean that the choices libraries and others make about what to preserve are shaped not by real need, but by artificial constraints. Given that preservation represents, in effect, a free service to rightholders, this situation is absurd.

But how many countries do indeed have the rules they need to allow for preservation copying, and do they offer the flexibility needed to use newer techniques such as digitisation?

We looked through the information gathered by Professor Kenneth Crews for the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2017, to check on the figures.

On the positive side, we found that over 72% of the 186 countries covered do have preservation exceptions. However, less than half of these – 30% in total – were sufficiently flexible to allow for digital copying.

Looking across world regions, over 90% of developed countries had basic preservation exceptions and over 75% of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Africa scored lowest, with only 54%.

However, once we consider whether exceptions allow for digitisation, the picture changes, with just 3% of Latin American and Caribbean countries having an appropriate exception. Indeed, around the world, it was only in the developed region that more than 30% of countries allowed for digitisation for preservation purposes.

This is a serious challenge, given that it means that libraries in a large majority of countries – and particularly in developing countries – are unable to take advantage of new technologies easily in order to preserve their past. Meanwhile, richer countries are better able to safeguard their heritage.

More importantly still, with slow progress towards an international agreement on copyright exceptions at WIPO, no country can freely form digitisation networks with others around the world in order to preserve in-copyright heritage.

The need for action is pressing.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.