Contemporary writers and contemporary copyright. Publishing copyrighted archival material online

The talk “Contemporary writers and contemporary copyright. Publishing copyrighted archival material online” was presented at the CO:OP conference “CO:OPyright: Challenges and Practices of Copyright and Licensing of Digital Cultural Heritage” hosted by the Center for Information Modelling – Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities in Graz.

Location: University of Graz, RESOWI
Date: Apr 12-13, 2017

See the program

See the slides


In this paper, I will discuss two approaches to publishing copyrighted archival material online by example of two online platforms on contemporary writers hosted by the Austrian National Library. Ernst Jandl Online and Handkeonline will serve as examples for dealing with work materials of living or (relatively) recently deceased authors in digital projects in an Austrian legal context. Therefore, this paper is concerned with the legal situation of text in digital images (not primarily with the situation of the images themselves). However, the paper is not meant to give “best practice” examples, but much rather aims at showing the difficulties and pitfalls one might encounter when working with digitized archival material. It takes the form of a “field report” by a researcher involved in both projects.

On this paper’s terminology: The term “copyright” is used in the sense of the Austrian legal term “Urheberrecht” to describe an author’s rights to his works, i.e. moral as well as exploitation rights. The latter can be sold or transferred (which is usually the case in some form when an author signs a contract with a publisher), while the former are inalienable. These rights concern the works on an abstract level, i.e. as “ideas”. When discussing the juridical situation of archival material, yet another legal concept is vital: the concept of ownership for the physical carriers of the texts (which is not per se linked in any way to the rights to the abstract work).


Handkeonline is a digital research platform on the Austrian writer Peter Handke (*1942). Its core module presents Handke’s “Works & materials”, collecting information on manuscripts, typescripts, notebooks, and other material produced and used by the writer in the course of writing his texts. The material is described in text and table form. In addition, sample scans of one to ten pages are shown for most items. These images open in a popup (fig 1). They have a digital watermark and a caption which includes the title, material type, year, archive, signatory, and page number of the displayed image, as well as copyright information; in 99% of the cases, that is “© Peter Handke”. The same is true for the material to be found in the module “Full facsimiles”. In addition to this, the start page of the website informs users that “images and facsimiles are protected by copyright and reproduction rights, any further distribution of this content is explicitly prohibited” (Handkeonline, start page, transl. VH). Similarly, the descriptive texts are under the copyright of the editorial staff (or contributing authors). The website does not state the legal conditions under which the collected metadata about the material may be used.

The platform’s concept was feasible because the author chose to be liberal about the amount of material shown on the website. In addition, Handke’s publishing house Suhrkamp, which holds some exploitation rights to his texts, could be convinced by the project team and author to allow the digital depiction of a few texts in their entirety. The watermarks on the scans aim at preventing unauthorized printing in order to protect the copyright holder (Handke) as well as the material owners (in the majority of cases the Literary archives of the Austrian National Library) – however, this might be considered redundant as the scans’ quality is not suitable for printing.

Ernst Jandl Online

Ernst Jandl Online is a “biblio-biography” on the works of the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl (1925-2000). Its core module “bio-bibliographicals” shows scans of unpublished manuscripts and typescripts with short bio-bibliographical texts (for book backs, introductions in radio shows or at readings, etc.) written by Jandl himself and preserved at the Austrian National Library. The images can be enlarged, however, neither the previews nor the images themselves have watermarks; information on their legal situation can be found only in the imprint. Although the second module “Ernst Jandl’s works” presents bibliographical data on every single poem or text ever published by the author, the poems themselves could not be included because Jandl’s publisher Luchterhand (part of Randomhouse publishing group) owns the exploitation rights. While the website and its content (the bibliographical data) could thus be made available under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0), the bio-bibliographies are protected by copyright, which is held by Jandl’s main heir Friederike Mayröcker.

Both projects deal with the situation that the material they show is protected by copyright which does not belong to the individual or institutional creators of the websites. Therefore, the copyright holders’ decisions on how to handle images of these materials have to be respected. In my paper, I will discuss the outlined situations in detail and in addition speak about the legal situation of the archival data collections that the two example projects contain.