Copyright hindering scholarship in the humanities and social sciences

A report from the British Academy, launched on 18 September, expresses fears that the copyright system may in important respects be impeding, rather than stimulating, the production of new ideas and new scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

It is in the nature of creative activity and scholarship that original material builds on what has gone before – ‘if I have seen further, it is because I had stood on the shoulders of giants’ – therefore provisions that are overly protective of the rights of existing ideas may inhibit the development of new ones.

Existing UK law provides exemption from copyright for fair dealing with material for purposes of private study and non-commercial research, and for criticism and review. “There is, however, little clarity about the precise scope of these exemptions, and an absence of case law” said John Kay, who is Chair of the Working Group which oversaw the Review. “Publishers are risk-averse, and themselves defensive of existing copyrights.”

The situation is aggravated by the increasingly aggressive defence of copyright by commercial rights holders, and the growing role – most of all in music – of media businesses with no interest in or understanding of the needs of scholarship. It is also aggravated by the unsatisfactory EU Database Directive, which is at once vague and wide-ranging, and by the development of digital rights management systems, which may enable publishers to use technology to circumvent the exceptions to copyright which are contained in current legislation.

The Academy publishes with the report a draft set of guidelines for Fellows and scholars on their rights and duties under copyright legislation. They include

This report parallels a report from the Royal Society, Keeping science open: the effects of intellectual property on the conduct of science (2003), which expresses related worries about the ways in which intellectual property, its interpretation and its use, impact on the progress of science.



18 September 2006

  1. Please contact Ms V Hurley at or call 020 7969 5268 for copies of the report and guidelines.
  2. For briefings and interviews please contact Professor John Kay – Chair of the Review Working Group that produced the report, preferably on either Wednesday 13 or Thursday 14 September – or call 020 7224 8797.
  3. For further media enquires relating the Review please contact Michael Reade, External Relations Department or telephone 020 7969 5263.
  4. The Academy’s Review was set up in November 2005 before the establishment of the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property. The Review Working Group took the lead in preparing the Academy’s response to the call for evidence that was issued in February 2006 by the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, which was established by the government to examine the UK’s in intellectual property framework, and determine whether improvements can be made to it, especially in the context of rapid technological change and globalisation. The Academy’s submission to Gowers is available from The timetable of the Academy’s Review means that this report has been published before the results of the Gowers Review are known.
  5. The British Academy is the National Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Established by Royal Charter in 1902, the British Academy is an independent learned society promoting the humanities and social sciences. It is composed of Fellows elected in recognition of their distinction as scholars in the humanities and social sciences.
  6. Further details about the British Academy may be found at:
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