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Orphan works in the United States

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Title: Orphan works in the United States  
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Subject: Orphan works, Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Contributor copyright investigations/SasiSasi, United States copyright law, Abandonware
Collection: Orphan Works, United States Copyright Law
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Orphan works in the United States

Seal of the United States Copyright Office

An orphan work is a copyrighted work whose owner is impossible to identify or contact.[1] This inability to request permission from the copyright owner often means orphan works cannot be used in new works nor digitized, except when fair use exceptions apply. Until recently, public libraries could not digitally distribute orphaned books without risking being fined up to $150,000 if the owner of the copyright were to come forward.[2] This problem was addressed in the 2011 case Authors Guild et al. v. Google.


  • Background 1
  • 2006 study by US Copyright Office 2
  • Orphan works legislation 3
    • 2006 orphan works bill 3.1
    • 2008 orphan works bill 3.2
      • Argument against the bill 3.2.1
  • Attempts to make orphan works available 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The fair use is potentially a violation of copyright. Potential users of orphaned works are often not willing to take on that risk of copyright violation, so they may individually investigate the copyright status of each work they plan to use.[2]

To some, this scenario is not in the public interest; it limits works that are available to the public. It also discourages the creation of new works that incorporate existing works. Creators who want to use an orphan work are often unwilling to do so for fear that they will have to pay a huge amount of money in damages if the owner ever appears; the risk of additional liability or litigation may be too high. This makes the work of historians, archivists, artists, scholars, and publishers at times more difficult and costly than necessary.[4] The issue arises in WorldHeritage, where the copyright owner of a photo that would have illustrated an article may be unknown.

Libraries and archives do have limited privileges to make copies of certain orphan works under section H of 17 U.S.C. § 108.

2006 study by US Copyright Office

In January 2006, the United States Copyright Office released a report on orphan works.[1] This report was the culmination of a year-long study conducted by the office, based on open forums from the public to collect input.[5]

In it, the Copyright Office states that new legislation is desperately needed to address the orphan works problem. The report proposed that if a nonprofit organization such as a library used an orphan work and the copyright owner came forward, then the library would be exempt from huge copyright infringement fines as long as it stopped using the orphan work right away. Commercial uses of an orphan work in which the owner came forward would only be charged a "reasonable compensation"[1] of the profits, and use of the work would be allowed to continue.[6]

The Office's proposed solution is thought to have favored publishers, and disfavored archivists and scholars.[6]

Orphan works legislation

Beginning in May 2006, various legislative bills have been introduced in Congress aimed at addressing the issue of orphan works.[7] As of 2012, Congress has not yet passed any legislation.

2006 orphan works bill

H.R. 5439, the Orphan Works Act of 2006, was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Intellectual Property Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas on May 22, 2006. This bill was based directly on recommendations from the Copyright Office report, including the "reasonable compensation" concept for copyright owners who come forward. Additions were also made from public feedback on the report to protect the work of visual artists.[8] The bill was forwarded to the full House Judiciary Committee, but did not advanced further.[9]

2008 orphan works bill

H.R. 5889, the Orphan Works Act of 2008, was introduced on April 24, 2008 by three Members of the U.S. House of Representatives overseeing intellectual property legislation. The Senate bill S. 2913, also known as the Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008, was introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Similar to H.R. 5439, the 2008 legislation carried the same conditions for appropriate use of a copyrighted work.[10]

An important aspect of the bill is found in Section 3 which introduces the idea of a Database of Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works and states:

The 2008 legislation permitted limiting different forms of legal remedies, for example levying no statutory damages or attorneys fees, to be imposed against the user of a copyrighted work. However, the following conditions must apply:

  • The user undertook a diligent and good faith search to locate the owner of the work yet could not find him or her
  • When using the work, the user identified a locatable owner as much as possible.
  • If an owner appears and demands the stop of the use of their work, the user stops use, with certain case by case exceptions.
  • The user acted in good faith in searching for and negotiating with the owner on a reasonable royalty for use
  • Paying back royalties for the use on a "willing seller, willing buyer" standard if the use of the work was commercial in nature and satisfied certain categories of uses

Unlike previously introduced bills, the 2008 legislation included the following:

  • A delayed effective date until the earlier of 2013 or the date on which the Register of Copyrights certifies two databases that can be used to search for pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works for these works – it is now 2013 in the 2008 passed Senate version as well)
  • A study of the copyright registration deposit system by the Governmental Accountability Office
  • A requirement for users to file an advance notice of use with the Copyright Office
  • A requirement that uses of orphan works be identified with a special symbol to be created by the Copyright Office
  • Allowing a judge to award extra compensation to the appropriate user if a work was indeed registered

On May 15, 2008, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to report the bill to the full Senate after adopting an amendment. The Senate unanimously passed this bill on September 26, 2008. However, the bill never passed in the House of Representatives, and died.[11]

Argument against the bill

Opponents claim that the bill is vague and inefficient because copyright infringers would only need to prove that they made a "diligent effort" to locate the copyright owner of a work. The definition of "diligent effort" is vague, and it is not clear what copyright owners need to do to protect their work from these infringers. This potentially increases the number of infringers since the cost of infringing is not too great, and copyright owners must take more measures to protect their work than before.[12][13]

Attempts to make orphan works available

The [16]

See also


  1. ^ a b c United States Copyright Office (2006). "Report on Orphan Works". Register of Copyrights. 
  2. ^ a b Varian, Hal. "Copyrights That No One Knows About Don’t Help Anyone". New York Times. Retrieved 22 October 2012. 
  3. ^ 17 U.S.C. 102.
  4. ^ "Orphan Works". Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Duke University. Retrieved October 2012. 
  5. ^ Keeley, Joe. "Efforts by the U.S. Copyright Office". Retrieved 22 October 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Foster, Andrea. "Copyright Office Sides With Publishers in Proposal for Handling 'Orphan' Works". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 22 October 2012. 
  7. ^ "Copyright: Orphan Works". American Library Association. August 2006. Archived from the original on 2006-11-25. Retrieved 2006-11-28. 
  8. ^ "Statement of Marybeth Peters The Register of Copyrights before the Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property, Committee on the Judiciary". Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  9. ^ Bill Summary & Status: 109th Congress (2005 - 2006): H.R.5439
  10. ^ Keeley, Joseph. " Following the Work of Orphan Works Legislation". Retrieved October 2012. 
  11. ^ "S. 2913 (110th): Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008". Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  12. ^ Lawrence Lessig. "Little Orphan Artworks". New York Times. Retrieved 12 November 2012. 
  13. ^ "NPPA cannot support orphan works legislation". Retrieved 12 November 2012. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ David Rapp. "HathiTrust Orphan Works Project Grows as University of California, Others Join Up". Library Journal. Retrieved 12 November 2012. 
  16. ^ David Rapp. "University of Michigan Puts HathiTrust Orphan Works Project on Hold". Library Journal. Retrieved 12 November 2012. 

External links

  • The full text of the Senate version of the bill (S.2913)
  • The full text of the House of Representatives version of the bill (H.R.5889)
  • April 2012 symposium held by UC Berkeley Center for Law and Technology: "Orphan Works and Mass Digitization: Obstacles & Opportunities"
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