The (Copy) right to Break the Royal Seal

Posted by David Moore on
There was an interesting application to the Family Court recently for the purposes of releasing the will and codicil of HRH the Duke of Windsor from a sealed envelope for the purposes of copying the contents to confirm the copyright owner of the literary work contained within.

Sir James Munby (President of the Family Division) was greeted with a rara avis (using his own words – a 'rare bird' for the uninitiated) when an application in relation to the will of his Royal Highness the Duke of Windsor, who died on 28 May 1972, landed on his in-tray. The application was made by a Mr Oliver Urquhart Irvine, the Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen's Archives, and requested the unsealing of an envelope which had not been broken since it was sealed in 1972. The will and codicil had been sealed in its envelope by wax seal in accordance with the established practice for royal wills and was presented to Sir Munby, who acknowledged that the seal remained intact.

The application was made by way of a letter from Mr Irvine and was called a rarity by Sir Munby as it was an application that had been made without payment of any court fee. In the special circumstances of this particular case, Sir Munby was willing to consider the application without requiring the issue of any formal application or the filing of formal evidence.

Mr Irvine's letter sets out the basis for the application:

"We recently ordered the will of the Duke of Windsor (your ref 45483) from the Find A Will search service on; however, only the grant to the executors was received. On behalf of the Royal Archives, I would like to formally request a full copy of the will and codicil for research purposes. Although the Royal Archives holds many originals and copies of probate records for past members of the Royal Family, this is a gap in our holdings and therefore in our knowledge.

The Royal Archives is seeking to ascertain the identity of the current rights holder to the papers of Edward, Duke of Windsor whose copyright will not expire until 2042… we have previously been approached by researchers seeking permission to publish letters by the Duke of Windsor but have been unable to advise whether copyright is held by Her Majesty The Queen. With a copy of the will and codicil, we will be able to determine the identity of his residual beneficiary and begin the process of identifying the current copyright holder."

Sir Munby read the letter as an application for a direction authorising disclosure of the will and codicil solely to Mr Irvine in his capacity as The Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen's Archives. The court heard that Mr Irvine had identified two reasons to justify the disclosure (1) the desire to fill the gap in knowledge of the Archives and (2) in order to identify the copyright holder in the literary works created by HRH. Sir Munby said that each reason was compelling enough to justify the disclosure and further, that it "would be absurd to deny the Royal Archives copies of the will and codicil of one who was born a Royal Prince, died a Royal Duke and was in his time His Majesty the King."

As a result, Sir Munby ordered that the seal of the envelope be broken, that one copy of the contents be taken – with that copy being delivered to Mr Irvine in his capacity as The Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen's Archives and that the contents of the envelope be re-sealed in the envelope.

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David is a Litigation and Dispute Resolution Solicitor specialising in a broad range of contentious civil and commercial matters.

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