Opening the National Library's digital doors

New legislation allows Israeli cultural institutions greater freedom to digitize their archives - without fear of lawsuits.

Begin and other Likud funnies from the collection of the National Library  (photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)
Begin and other Likud funnies from the collection of the National Library
A caricature of a balloon-headed prime minister Menachem Begin looks out from the cover of a pamphlet published ahead of the 1981 national election.
“Begin... and the rest of the Likud’s jokes,” it reads.
The little green booklet is one of the millions of items and artifacts held by the National Library of Israel in its extensive archives. But until now, it was one of many items that the library did not earmark for digitization, because it is known as “orphan work,” whose copyright holders cannot be located.
Now, following an amendment to the Copyright Law passed in the Knesset on January 1, the library and other cultural institutions in Israel will have much greater freedom to digitize and share their vast holdings without the fear of lawsuits. Those who lobbied for the amendment – including the National Library – said that the legislation brings Israel in line with the European Union, Canada and other countries.
“The removal of the constant threat that was placed in front of cultural institutions in Israel – which demanded reparations even if no damage was done to the rights holder – is important news that will enable Israeli cultural institutions to better fulfill their public purpose without fear of false claims,” said National Library director Oren Weinberg. “We are convinced that all citizens of Israel and Jews around the world will see in the coming years the fruits of change that will enable wider and better access to a vast mosaic of heritage and cultural materials.”
There are two components of the amendment that are being celebrated by the National Library and other Israeli cultural institutions. The first allows for “orphan works” – whose author cannot be located after a diligent search – to be made digitally accessible. The second states that cultural and educational institutions can only be sued for violation of copyright if it can be proven that the use of such works caused monetary damage to the author or copyright holder.
“This will allow us in the coming years to be able to do something [that] we haven’t tried to do until today,” said Noam Solan, the copyright manager at the National Library of Israel. “Our emphasis is to make books accessible – most of the literature that has been published in the State of Israel is not known or accessible, and we think that’s unfortunate. There’s a vast wealth out there.”
In the two weeks since the amendment was passed, library officials have already begun identifying some works that they can now digitize and share with a wider audience.
In addition to the election pamphlet on Begin, the library will make accessible artifacts including a map of Israel from the 1970s that denotes the areas allotted to biblical tribes; a Passover Haggada from 1904 translated into the Tatar language; and a booklet written in Morocco in 1919, detailing Jewish laws, customs and songs and published by the “Zionist Magen David” organization in Morocco.
But Solan said that he expects and hopes the legislation will impact the library on a much broader, long-term scale.
“We tried to find the copyright owners and we couldn’t, so now we can make them accessible,” he said, but noted that “It’s a process, but it’s a process we haven’t done yet, and this allows us to do a lot more.”
Solan said that the amendment will enable the library to give potential donors a more accurate estimate of the time and money it will take to digitize a certain segment of a collection. It will also shield it from lawsuits that in the past have used up time and resources.
The library faced a lawsuit from a photographer over a photo they displayed at an event in 2015.
“We had an evening about Rav [Yehoshua] Mondshine, and the family gave us a photo and we used it,” Solan recalled. “Then after a certain time we got a lawsuit from the photographer who said ‘that was my photo and you didn’t credit me.’”
Under the new amendment, he said, cultural and educational institutions would be protected from such suits, unless the copyright owner can “prove there was damage to [the individual].”
Solan also said that until now, the library digitized many of its assets under the principle of fair use, which allows sharing copyrighted information for a different purpose than originally intended. This has come into play with its archive of old Jewish newspapers from around the world.
“Legally it’s very complicated,” said Solan. There are reporters, employees, freelancers and photographers who contributed to a product that is copyrighted by a publisher. But for many of the historic newspapers, the publisher may no longer exist.
Solan said that if the library publishes a newspaper from the 1940s, it’s not sharing news items, and if it posts an ad for cigarettes from the 1950s, it’s not selling cigarettes.
“The goal instead is to share history, and culture, and therefore it’s a totally different goal,” Solan said.
But even with the new legislation in place, the library has a long way to go before its vast collection is made digitally accessible online.
“We have big digitization projects going on – of manuscripts, we have a cooperation project with Google of 100,000 books in the public domain,” said Solan. He said that over the past few years, the library has digitized more than 2 million photos, 400 historic newspapers - including more than 2.5 million pages - 70,000 Hebrew manuscripts, tens of thousands of musical recordings and thousands of books. “But we’re far away from digitizing even a significant portion of the library’s collection.”