A Plan to Rescue Orphan Works

“Orphan works” are one of our richest bodies of cultural works but also one of the most legally problematic. An orphan work is a creative work whose copyright status is unknown or unknowable — the old diary found in an attic, the film of uncertain provenance, and the illustration found in an old magazine. Who owns them? It can be next to impossible to locate the copyright owners, if they are still alive. And it can be extremely expensive simply to conduct a search. Yet if you go ahead and use these works and a copyright holder suddenly materializes, you could be hit with a lawsuit and $150,000 in statutory damages.

To deal with this problem—and open up our cultural past to contemporary artists—Public Knowledge is pushing “orphan works” legislation that would allow artists to use orphan works so long as they made a diligent effort to find the original copyright owner. In the unlikely event that the original owner does emerge, the bill requires that users pay a reasonable compensation, and not exorbitant penalties.

Unfortunately, many photographers, illustrators and textile makers oppose this legislation. So it needs your help in getting through Congress. You can learn more about the Senate bill here