The Issue of Orphan Works

Friday, September 16, 2011


On Monday, The Author's Guild filed a lawsuit against several universities who have announced their intentions to make available electronic copies of so called "orphan works," books for which no copyright owner can be found. Law professor and blogger James Grimmelmann talks to Bob about the sticky legal issues that orphan works present.

Comments [4]

Lisa Shaftel from New York

The US Copyright Office defines “orphan works” as “copyrighted works whose owners are difficult or even impossible to locate.” In other words, a work that is still protected within its term of copyright, but the copyright owner cannot be contacted for a variety of reasons by a user who seeks permission to use the work.

I define two categories copyright owners:
#1 Works created by individual living authors who still own their copyright, or are deceased and their copyright has passed to their heirs, and is unlocatable either because they have not kept their contact information current with the US Copyright Office, their name is not on their work, or they never registered their work at all. These copyright owners are simply unlocatable.
#2 Works created under a Work-For-Hire agreement (or where the author’s rights were bought out in full), where a business or corporation owned the copyright, and that business or corporation is defunct and its assets- including intellectual property rights- were not sold or assigned to anyone else. In this circumstance, these works are truly orphaned in that no one owns the copyright although the term of copyright has not expired, and therefore these works are not in public domain.

Most visual works –images- don’t have the creator’s name on them. Whether they are photographs, paintings, or illustrations used commercially, it’s unlikely the creator or rights holder is identified, even if the images was created very recently and the rights holder is still very much alive. Without a name to search for, it’s nearly impossible for a user to locate the rights holder and therefore the work would be deemed a copyright “orphan.”
For more information, visit the Graphic Artists Guild’s website

Copyright is included in the US Constitution, and has always applied equally to works created by individuals like you and me, as well as works created or owned by businesses small and large (including “corporations”). Copyright ownership is crucial for the economic livelihoods of all people –and businesses- that create original works; that’s how we earn our living. What has no interest or value now may become au courant and of great interest and value at some time in the future.

Lisa Shaftel
National Advocacy Committee Chair
Graphic Artists Guild

Sep. 19 2011 02:32 PM

I agree with TerryM. It's time to de-corporatize copyrights & patents & shorten their time limits.

Sep. 18 2011 10:49 AM
Frances Grimble

I suggest looking at the discussion of the Hathi Trust "orphan works" project at:

Sep. 17 2011 02:39 PM

Sadly, that some so called "orphan works" are not orphans at all is almost beside the point. The trouble is most have no market value and never will.

Yes, the owners will fight to preserve their ownership rights - and it is almost amusing to watch works with dwindling interest remain out of print as the estate fight on for a valueless ownership right. One example is with the works of Zane Grey. His voice is now almost completely lost now, yet his remaining estate still owns the works and seems unable to let the works be reprinted. All too bad for those who might want to read one of his tales, if only for historic value.

Oh well!

What we really need are much shorty copyrights (and patent rights).

Sep. 17 2011 08:04 AM

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