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Center for the Study of the Public Domain Little men

Orphan Works

"Orphan Works" probably comprise the majority of the record of 20th century culture. These works are still presumably under copyright (only works published before 1923 are conclusively in the public domain), but the copyright owner cannot be found. The default response of archivists, libraries, film restorers, artists, scholars, educators, publishers, and others is to drop copyrighted work unless it is clearly in the public domain. As a result, orphan works are not used in new creative efforts or made available to the public due to uncertainty over their copyright status, even when there is no longer anyone claiming copyright ownership, or the owner no longer has any objection to such use.

The Center has submitted the following two proposals to the Copyright Office on Access to Orphan Works and Orphan Films.

Orphan Works
The costs of an inadequate system of access to orphan works are huge: needlessly disintegrating films, prohibitive costs for libraries, incomplete and spotted histories, thwarted scholarship, digital libraries put on hold, delays to publication. In the cases where the work is truly an orphan work, those costs are tragic because they are completely unnecessary. This report describes the orphan works problem, and offers a proposal to fix it.

 

Orphan Films
The difficulty of access to orphan films is a matter of crisis because these works are literally disintegrating. At a time when digital technologies allow for more sophisticated and cheaper restoration and distribution of old films, uncertainty about copyright status has impeded restoration efforts. Worse still, in most cases the films are completely unavailable to the public even for simple viewing. This report describes these problems in detail.


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