British History Online is a site created and run by Institute for Historical Research (part of the University of London I believe) and the History of Parliament Trust and located at: (note the ‘’ domain name signifying the official academic status though rather unusually they do run ads). Their purpose is clearly stated on the front page:

“British History Online is the digital library containing some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles. Created by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust, we aim to support academic and personal users around the world in their learning, teaching and research.”

Great stuff. And it looks like they are doing a fine job. For example, a quick browse indicates a recent addition was “A Catalogue of Ancient Deeds”, a digitization of a work originally produced by a Mr H. C. Maxwell Lyte in 1890. Obscure material perhaps but undoubtedly of worth and precisely the kind whose value would be maximized by being made open free for anyone to use, reuse and redistribute. In particular it’s good to remember the The Many Minds Principle (the coolest thing to do with your material will be thought of by someone else) and what it means in this context:

  • Openness would permit re-presentation of the material in different formats, different layouts and even different media (you want it in plain text: no problem, you want to mark it up in fancy xml — or even RDF: no problem …).
  • Openness would permit recombination of this material with other sources. After all much of this kind of material, while interesting, on its own has limited value. By interlinking, annotating and combining it with other data and content we can multiply its utility massively.
  • Openness would permit redistribution, easier archiving and distributed hosting (the site’s down: no problem here’s a mirror).

But surprise, surprise what do we find at the bottom of very page:

“Copyright © 2007 University of London & History of Parliament Trust – All rights reserved”

Taking a look at their terms and conditions we find:

  1. Licence

Unless otherwise stated, the copyright and other intellectual property rights in all material on this site, including photographs and graphical images, and the organisation and layout of the site are owned or controlled by the University of London or the History of Parliament Trust.

You are permitted to access, print and download extracts from this site on the following conditions:

  • use of all material on this site is for information and for non-commercial or your own personal use only; any copies of these pages saved to disk or to any other storage medium may only be used for subsequent viewing purposes or to print extracts for non-commercial or your own personal use,

ed: do they have some kind of business model here or is this just “let’s restrict just in case”. Do they also realize that:

  • (for example) hosting this material on a site which ran ads (just like they do) likely counts as commercial (and just the uncertainty as to whether or it is or not is a deal-killer)
  • they’ve just excluded a large number of those who might be interested in archiving (e.g. Google) or promoting this material (producers of open educational materials for schools).
  • material on this site must not be modified in any way,

ed: ok, so there goes reuse

  • graphics on this site must not be used separately from accompanying text, and

ed: why?

  • any use of the material for a permitted purpose must be accompanied by (i) a full source citation; (ii) the University of London and History of Parliament Trust copyright notice; and (iii) this permission notice.

No part of this site may be reproduced or stored in any other web site or included in any public or private electronic retrieval system or service without the University of London and History of Parliament Trust’s prior written permission.

ed: ok so even if I felt public-spirited and wanted to archive this — and I probably couldn’t even redistribute it — I’d need to ask permission. Really makes it an attractive proposition.

The University of London and History of Parliament Trust reserve all rights not expressly granted in these terms. [ed: one final irony is that much of the stuff on there appears to be (at least in its original unprocessed form) public domain!]

Fantastic, we’ve now pretty much disallowed all uses except plain access and printing (for non-commercial and personal purposes). Given their concern about commercial usage, one really has to wonder what revenue streams they have (or expect to develop) from the likes of “A Descriptive Catalogue of Ancient Deeds” or “Feet of fine for Sussex for 1190-1509”.

Moreover, like so many others, they just don’t get that the main benefits of making material digital is the potential for reuse, representation and distributed archiving and distribution. Let’s repeat one more time:

The Best Thing To Do With Your Material Will Be Thought of By Someone Else

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Rufus Pollock is Founder and President of Open Knowledge.

2 thoughts on “British History Online: Why the Restrictions?”

  1. I don’t get this… Surely a work published in 1890 is out of copyright. And surely that means we can reproduce it, if we can get hold of a copy, which we can from this website.

    My guess, and I am not remotely a lawyer, is that the copyright statement only applies to parts of the website that are novel creations of the University of London or the History of Parliament Trust.

    Or are you telling me that digitising a work suddenly makes it copyright you? It’s just a way of transporting it. You may as well say posting it to me is creating a new work.

  2. Clearly that should be the case: simply publishing a PD work does not give you a new copyright. However, suppose in addition to plain digitization they had proof edited the original text then they might well get a new copyright in their version. This is much like the situation with people who bring out reissues of old recordings or broadcasts in digital format. Their you find the reissues frequently claim (recording) copyright on the basis of the ‘cleaning up’ they had done. (And, btw you almost certainly do get copyright in an image (e.g. a scan or photograph) of a PD document — see e.g. the (c) notice the British Library put on their shakespeare folio images and the discussion in

    Whether such claims would stand if contested is an open question but would you want to have to find out? Furthermore, in a recent case in the UK, Sawkins vs Hyperion, copyright was found in an edition of a public domain work where substantial editorial effort and expertise had been required — see the discussion in this okfn-discuss post:

    Given all of this at the very least the website should clearly state for each work what the situation, i.e. whether the work is PD, or if not what terms it is being made available under. The current situation simply creates uncertainty — if all of the material that people would want is actually PD then why the need for the T&C to specifically give permission for “non-commercial or your own personal use only”.

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