The British Library has launched its UK Web Archive to capture and record thousands of UK web sites, but has warned that the future of the project is at risk owing to copyright legislation.
The project has been in development since 2004, and contains sites that would otherwise be lost, including recession casualties such as Woolworths and Zavvi and short-term projects like the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square.
British Library chief executive Dame Lynne Brindley said that the project had already captured and preserved 6,000 sites in an effort to avoid a "digital black hole" in UK web history.
"The British Library has led the UK Web Archive in its mission to record major cultural and social issues being discussed online. Throughout the project, the library has worked to capture and preserve over 6,000 carefully selected web sites," she said.
However, the project is facing difficulties as material that is freely available on the web is still subject to copyright and cannot be archived without permission from each site's owner.
Dame Brindley warned that the British Library will be able to collect only one per cent of the 8.8 million .co.uk domain address that will exist by 2011 unless the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) steps in.
"We hope that the DCMS consultation will enact the 2003 Legal Deposit Libraries Act and extend the provision of legal deposit through regulation to cover freely available UK web sites, providing regular snapshots of the free UK web domain," she said.
The British Library has been backed by groups including the National Library of Wales and the Wellcome Library in an effort to lobby the government to clarify elements of the Act.
The issue is compounded by new research estimating that the average life expectancy of a web site is just 44 to 75 days, and that 10 per cent of all UK web sites are lost or replaced by new material every six months.
Robin Fry, a partner at law firm Beachcroft LLP, explained that, while the British Library has a legal right to archive every book published in the UK, applying for a similar precedent for web sites would prove unmanageable.
He added that the situation once again highlighted the inability of current copyright law to keep pace with the digital economy.
"It's effectively impossible for the British Library to go through the process of clearing the rights for every web site. A clear permission in our copyright laws is urgently needed," he said.
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