A while back we wrote about the new database from Stanford University that helps one search copyright renewal records for that period of US copyright history during which un-renewed works would pass into the public domain. Now the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin has announced two databases that will help make searching for information about “orphan works” a little easier.
The Ransom Center has offered the WATCH database, which stands for “Writers, Artists and their Copyright Holders,” for some time. This database helps those seeking permission to use a copyrighted work find out who owns or administers the rights and can give the necessary permission. For example, if one searches “Rawlings” in the WATCH database one discovers the name and address of the literary trust that holds rights in Marjorie Rawlings work.
On May 29 the Center announced a companion database – FOB, for “Firms out of Business.” Here one can find publishing firms that no longer exist, have changed hands or are part of a larger company. Searching “Vintage,” for example, turns up the information that it is an imprint of Random House and that the parent was sold in 2006 to a German company called Bertelsmann AG. Tracking the subdivisions and mergers in publishing is a huge and complex task, so it is impossible for a database like FOB to be entirely complete and up-to-date, but the ability to find “successors in interest” for a defunct publisher will go a long way to reducing the burden of seeking permission.
Both these databases are valuable tools for finding rights holders. The real problem is when rights holders can not be found; when the databases come up empty. That is the real orphan works problem – works that are lost to our cultural heritage as long as they are locked up by copyright with no one to turn the key by giving permission. For that problem we need to see the orphan works legislation that was proposed last year reintroduced in Congress and passed without delay. But in the meantime the Ransom Center deserves a hat tip for the hard work it has done to make the work of all who seek copyright permissions a little easier.