Space odyssey

Credit: NASA/Courtesy of

When the three astronauts from the Apollo 15 lunar mission visited City University in 1971 they presented the Chancellor with a framed signed photo of their moon landing.

The Times Higher Education (THE) website’s “Odds and Quads” series, in which they invite universities to send in short articles on “treasures, oddities and curiosities” in their collections, presented a good opportunity to bring the photo out of the Library archives, dust it off and show it off on the THE site.

Predictably, I only mention it here because it brought up an interesting copyright scenario.

It’s the sort of issue which museums and archives often come up against, particularly now that they are increasingly choosing to open up their collections to public access digital media.

Objects and artefacts of all kinds–maps, charts, paintings, sculptures, books (of course), manuscripts–may be subject to copyright restrictions and photographs are a particularly thorny problem. It’s usually the photographer who retains copyright in his or her own photos but how long that copyright lasts can be difficult to decide, depending as it does on what year the photo was taken and whether or not it has been published.

The Copyright Designs and Patents Act requires users to make all reasonable enquiries to track down copyright holders. This can be a real problem for museums and archives where objects were added to their collections so long ago that by now their provenance has become lost in the mists of time.

Where rightsholders prove untraceable, museum staff must then take a risk management decision to go ahead and digitise–or not–based on how likely they think it is that a litigious rightsholder will come out of the woodwork. If they do choose to go ahead they will usually cover themselves with a “take-down” policy. (The Science Museum, for example, has one of these: see the section on “Images” about half way down the page).

Thankfully, working out who the copyright owner might be for a photograph of astronauts on the moon wasn’t exactly, er, rocket science and my e-mail to NASA received a reply in a couple of days with the OK for us to have the photo scanned and for THE to upload it to their website.

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