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2 minutes to read Posted on Monday February 3, 2020

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Annabelle Shaw

Annabelle Shaw

Copyright & Rights Systems Manager , British Film Institute

Approaching rights research at the British Film Institute

Annabelle Shaw is copyright and rights systems manager at the British Film Institute (BFI) and leads on the rights work for archive digitisation and access projects. In this post for Europeana Pro, she reflects on the approach her institution has taken towards rights research ahead of mass digitisation projects and suggests a fresh way for cultural heritage institutions to look at this important practice.

main image
Film laddas.
Lundquist, Eric
1950-01-01 - 1959-01-01

Reflecting on rights research

Rights research is a multi-disciplined activity. It’s a mix of the methodical and messy, relying on structured data, the anecdotal, chance, persistence and creative thinking.  It’s a game of detection that can bring the researcher into contact with the rich stories associated with the creation, production and distribution of works.

This activity could benefit from more attention (does anyone know of courses or training in this area?). Spending the last six years grappling with orphan works and the diligent (rights) search that the Orphan Works Directive made mandatory, has made me think about approaches to rights research in terms of how, when and why it is carried out. Can orphan works diligent search help to develop thinking around the field of rights research, more widely as part of a more sustainable and longer legacy of collections management?

It is seldom I hear of an organisational need to reduce or limit the amount of research, curatorial or archival, carried out on collections. But when it comes to research focused on rights, it seems to be something squeezed from the start as a necessary inconvenience. So why not look at it from a more constructive approach?

Working collaboratively 

Online resources are abundant, freely available ones less so. During the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme, we researched over 1,000 rights holders to films in our collections and archives across the UK. We made extensive use of some designated sources, in particular volunteer run special interest and fan sites. We also used social media, including our own Facebook page, to reach out to people. 

Creating informal networks in other archives and organisations to seek information continues to be a wonderful way to share knowledge. We even called upon the public to help us in this task through a dedicated crowdsourcing site. In effect, much of this is a form of guided crowdsourcing, finding ways to tap into existing research to join the dots. 

I’ve also been involved with the EnDOW project, which investigated the availability of resources for rights research across the EU and produced a Diligent Search tool to help cultural heritage organisations navigate rights research. The next phase of the project, the EnDOW Community, will be to engage the wider public to help with the diligent search. 

Adapting workflows to a changing legal landscape

Evolution of digital access at the BFI has alternated between expansions in volume either as a result of proactive digitisation projects or reactively due to changes in copyright law. For example, the introduction of the legal provisions that allowed cultural heritage institutions to display works (protected by copyright or not) onsite (through the Dedicated Terminals exception under s40b Copyright, Designs and Patents Act) allowed the number of works available in our venue to increase from 3,000 to 60,000. 

For each project, rights research often starts afresh and workflows are designed with the project objectives and available resources in mind. For example, for the purposes of Unlocking Film Heritage, we took the decision to treat all UK non-fiction films made before 1945 as likely ‘out of copyright’ and therefore did not carry out research on these works. As the digitised works were made available in a limited way and non-commercially in the UK and Ireland only, this approach has paid off. However, it does mean that when the BFI receives requests from 3rd parties who want to do more with the works, the rights research process may have to start from scratch. 

An integrated approach

Much of the information we gather during the rights research process has no natural home other than email chains. Resourcing is focused on spreadsheets to bridge databases and to meet short term business demands at the expense of developing systematic data retention. So much of this valuable institutional knowledge has no central repository, with a lot of rights information kept in sync manually. This process does not support information in bulk, so there is a risk it will be lost unless we can find ways to retain and keep it validated post project. 

This is a snapshot of some of my experiences of rights research. The more I explore it, the more I think it needs to be seen as a proactive and integrated area of work. If we can change our view of rights research as more than just clearing copyright, and invest in more training, support and networks to share knowledge, rights research could bring longer term benefits for an organisation and its collections.