Friday, July 1, 2011

The Orphan Works Project

From Cory Doctrow via DeLong:

University of Michigan to stop worrying about lawsuits, start releasing orphan works: Bobbyg sez, "The University of Michigan Library will be sharing digital copies of their orphan works, that is, copyrighted works which have no identifiable owner, with the University community. Paul Courant, the University Librarian, says that the project is integral to the mission of the library, and that the sharing of the orphan works is a 'fair use' of the material, stating that 'sharing these orphan works does no economic harm to any person or organization, while not doing so harms scholarship and learning...'"

The Orphan Works Project is being led by the Copyright Office of the University of Michigan Library to identify orphan works. Orphan works are books that are subject to copyright but whose copyright holders cannot be identified or contacted. Our immediate focus is on digital books held by HathiTrust, a partnership of major research institutions and libraries working to ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future.

This effort is funded by the HathiTrust and is part of U-M Library's ongoing efforts to understand the true copyright status of works in its collection. As part of this effort, the Library will develop policies, processes, and procedures that can be used by other HathiTrust partners to replicate a task that will ultimately require the hand-checking of millions of volumes.

Bravo/a. I have no idea what will come of this, but pulling the default position of libraries, archives, and other institutions from one of debilitating fear or lawsuits to one of bravely sharing is something long past needed.

By the end of the Twentieth Century, we had reached the point where a company with enough lobbyists and lawyers could do anything they wanted with copyrights, whether it was getting a de facto permanent extension for Mickey Mouse or even removing a work from the public domain. As mentioned before, this reveals some tremendous hypocrisies from major players.


  1. For orphan works of American authors this seems fair enough but I'd like to know the contact regime for non-American authors. Authours from outside of the US find it hard to break into the American market so they go with low rank publishers which are prone to failure. The American contact is lost but the author goes on happily publishing stuff in their own country and being very much alive.

    Unless there is a real go at contacting out of country authors the UoM idea could take away any possibility of out of country authors being able to profit from their work in America - no publisher will publish their work if the work is already being given away for free.

  2. That's a good point. Ideally, in addition to trying to contact the author, the university would try to get in touch with the original overseas publisher.