Is Your Oral History Legal and Ethical?

5 After The Interview

The interviewer or project manager’s responsibilities continue after the interview has been completed.

Clarifying rights

At the end of the interview the interviewee should be:

  • reminded of his or her rights under copyright law: in summary that an interviewee owns copyright in his or her recorded words spoken on the recording and that this can be retained or assigned (passed) to someone else
  • reminded again of the arrangements which have been made for the custody and preservation of the interview and accompanying material, both immediately and in the future, and of any use to which the interview is likely to be put
  • asked if they require any restrictions on the use or availability of their interview at the time or in the future.

All these and other points should have been included in the information sheet, (PDF – 121Kb), which ideally should have been sent to the interviewee before the interview. It’s helpful to carry a spare copy so that this can be left with the interviewee after the interview.

All oral history projects, interviewers, researchers, and custodians in archives, museums and libraries holding oral history material, need clear authority to use those materials, otherwise they may not be able to justify the time and effort needed for conservation, documentation and storage. Interviewers and bodies such as societies or museums should therefore ask interviewees to give written assignments of copyright and other rights, and make clear their consent for use and access, by completing and signing a Recording Agreement, (PDF – 53Kb). The purpose of this form is:

  • to enable routine consultation of interviews to take place, subject to any closure or restrictions interviewees have imposed on all or part of the recording; and
  • to enable parts of recorded interviews or extracts from transcriptions to be used in publications, broadcasts, exhibitions or on the internet; and
  • to record in writing any closure or restrictions on access or use that the interviewee may wish to make.

For family history interviews an adapted version of the Recording Agreement is available: Joint statement of intent for oral history recordings for family research(PDF – 64Kb). Some organisations, such as the British Library, also have a leaflet explaining what the recording agreement is and how it can be used.

In the past some funding bodies such as National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Joint Information Systems Council (JISC) have required projects to use a Creative Commons (CC) licence for their work. There are several kinds of CC licence but broadly they allow copyright holders to enable easier re-use and publication of material without the need for users to seek permission from copyright holders. In fact these have never been easy to use where there are multiple copyright owners and such licences now also conflict with GDPR/Data Protection so are not recommended for oral history.

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Finalising the Recording Agreement

The Recording Agreement should be discussed face-to-face and signed by both the interviewee and the interviewer. Any closure or restrictions on access or use that the interviewee may wish to make should be clearly described (with time codes and with dates when any embargoes come to an end). Both should hold a copy. Remember that the Agreement only relates to the interview recorded on that occasion and not to any other versions of the same narrative or stories which might be recorded or written elsewhere on other occasions.

Simple assignment by the interviewee of their copyright to the interviewer or project will often be the most straightforward way to ensure that the recording can be utilised in the widest possible manner. Permission to make use of it in certain defined ways (a licence) is also acceptable, although this might be administratively more onerous for custodians where access/re-use requires collection holders to re-contact interviewees or their heirs at some future point in time. With a few exceptions, UK copyright law provides no mechanism through which interviews or recordings may be used extensively without permission, for instance in cases where the rights owners cannot be traced and no recording agreement has been obtained. Such exceptions as exist allow limited use of copyright works without the permission of the copyright owner for non-commercial research, criticism, to facilitate access for people with disabilities, and for certain educational uses (subject to an Educational Recording Agency license).

Although form-filling may be irksome, it means that interviewees are made aware of the rights they hold in the recording (their copyright), the purpose of the interview and its future use; thus ensuring that their interview is not subject to exploitative or other undesirable uses, and is safely stored for posterity. Any immediate restrictions on access and re-use which the interviewee might request are far outweighed by the longer-term benefits to historians in the future of a full and frank interview.

Preparing for preservation

Interviewers should ensure that the interview is documented, content-summarised and/or transcribed, catalogued and made available as agreed with the interviewee, and that a copy of the transcript and/or audio recording are given to the interviewee if an undertaking to do so has been given. Interviewers or project managers may also like to offer interviewees the opportunity to check the summary or transcript though this is not always a universal or necessary practice. Guidance on preparing content summaries is here.

Interviewers and project leaders should ensure that all possible measures are taken to preserve the original unedited interview recording and any related material. If these responsibilities are subsequently transferred to others (for example an archive or other place of deposit), this should be with the knowledge or consent of the interviewee and should be recorded in writing. In the case of an archive this will typically be done using a Deposit Agreement (a worked example is here).

Interviewers are strongly advised to seek a permanent place of deposit for their recordings and the Oral History Society regional networkers can often advise where this might be. In the case of family history interviews, where the interview partners have decided to keep the recording stored within the family, then the interviewer has a duty to ensure that the audio file is stored and backed-up and that a copy of the signed Joint Statement of Intent for Family History Recordings(PDF – 64Kb), is kept with the audio files. If the interviewee has requested any access restrictions for the material then the interviewer should honour these.

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