Free your Orphans!

Struggling with copyright?  You’re not alone.

Archives in the UK contain millions of “orphans”.  These works are in copyright but the rights holder(s) are unknown or untraceable so we cannot get permission to use the works.  This means the works are in legal limbo and hidden from audiences who might benefit from using them.

At Collecting in Tough Times last June I encouraged archive services to take a risk-managed approach to this conundrum.  The points I made are summarised in an article I wrote for Townsweb’s digitisation blog: Free your Orphans!

An orphan work from Special Collections at the University of Bradford.  J.B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes at Brook Hill, 1958 (archive reference HAW 18/5/52/1). Rights: Unknown Rightsholder

The most important message: copyright isn’t binary: in or out.  In modern Special Collections, there’s material definitely in and some definitely out, but so much else is a tangle of possibilities and unknowns.  Published or unpublished?  In copyright or out?  Who holds the rights?  Can they be traced?   Our response to this mess (other than campaigning for improvements to the law) needs to be flexible, practical, and based on an understanding of risk.

So I was delighted to see last week the launch of 11 standardised rights statements for use by libraries, archives and other heritage organisations.  The statements, created by DPLA and Europeana, include statements for orphan works (see this in use in the image caption above) and materials where copyright is unclear.   These, along with Creative Commons licences, give services a choice of machine-readable statements to communicate complex rights situations clearly to users.  I’ll be using the statements when I post images on my blogs and am looking into using them on our website, digital library etc.


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