How bad are the proposed Orphan Works bills?

Two proposals on Orphan Works were introduced in Congress last week, one in the House of Representatives and a slightly different one in the Senate. Both bills are more complex than the version introduced and then largely ignored by the 109th Congress, but the core principle is the same – a remission of most of the available remedies for infringement if a user makes use of an orphan work (a work whose copyright owner can not be found) after a reasonable diligent search. The bills are designed to greatly reduce the risk for libraries and many others who want to make digitized versions of older, but still copyright protected, works available to the public. In some sense it is an attempt to balance the outlandishly long term of copyright with the reality that a huge percentage of works are not economically exploited at all after their first few years of existence.

The big question is whether either bill actually succeeds, with success defined as a reasonable likelihood that a thousand flowers will bloom from the soil of orphaned works that otherwise would not have been seen for many more years. Opinion in the blogosphere is mixed; Public Knowledge, which was deeply involved in helping to draft the bills, is guardedly hopeful. Georgia Harper, on the other hand, writes this deeply pessimistic blog post that declares the bills “DOA. Too late even for last rites.” The issue, as I will discuss it, revolves around how burdensome it would be for libraries to actually rely on the procedure outlined in the bills to support digitization projects. Three issues seem to need discussion.

First, there is the requirement in the House bill that users of orphan works file a “Notice of Use” with the Copyright Office that would be maintained in a “Notice of Use Archive.” The notice would have to contain a description of the search for an owner that was made by the user, as well as lots of identifying information and a certification of good faith. This requirement is only in the House version, and it renders the Senate version much more appealing. A database of uses raises the specter of copyright owners fishing for defendants in a stocked pool, for one thing. But, realistically, this seems pretty unlikely. First, access to the database would be restricted by unspecified regulation of the Copyright Office. More importantly, if a diligent search really has been made (and libraries almost certainly would be doing so) most copyright owners who would be on the lookout for infringement would have been found. More problematic is the burden of fulfilling this requirement, a burden that would be hard to measure until (and if) a version of the bill with this requirement is in place and being used.

I certainly would rather this not be included in a final bill. But I also know that librarians are investing a lot of time, labor and money in digital collections as things stand now. I doubt that even a burdensome reporting requirement will discourage the commitment to greater access that drives these projects, especially when the content is something that could genuinely benefit scholarship and that has been previously unusable.

A second potential problem is the instruction to the Copyright Office to develop “best practices” for different kinds of content that would have to be followed for a search to qualify as reasonably diligent. Georgia Harper thinks this is a guarantee that the content industries will write the rules, and she may be right. Unlike the case of proposed file-sharing legislation, however, such a role for industry is not actually specified in the bills. In any case, I think most librarians working on digital projects would welcome the guidance of best practices, even if the door to using orphan works were opened only a little bit. So much of our collections are unavailable for use as things now stand, and we have such high certainty that many of those works genuinely have no one to care about how they are used, that even restrictive rules for a qualifying search would advance the cause of digital access. Again, I think many libraries will take the necessary trouble when the content and the opportunity seem worthwhile. Restrictive rules will help only small digitization projects, of course, which may be the point, but even so the digital environment could be greatly enriched.

Finally there are the added rules for pictorial, graphic and sculptural works. These are the categories whose owners have most vocally opposed orphan works reform because they fear that it will be too easy to call these works orphans. The problem is that most such works carry no obvious notice of the copyright owner. The proposed bills specify that this lack by itself does not make the work an orphan, and it directs the Copyright Office to certify a database “to facilitate the search for pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works that are subject to copyright protection.” Such a database would actually probably be welcomed by libraries, since it would both facilitate use of orphan works and provide a source for needed metadata. The big problem is that such a source does not seem to exist right now, and creation of it would delay implementation of the orphan works exception for as much as 5 years. Since images and graphical works are a large part of the collections libraries would like to digitize, this kind of delay would be a huge blow to the effort to give the public access to much of our unexploited cultural heritage.

Even with all these restrictions and potential problems for using the orphan works mechanism, I am inclined to think of these bills as half-full glasses. For one thing, it has been a long time since a genuinely user-centered proposal has even been considered by Congress. Also, this is a rare situation where libraries, higher ed., publishers and the recording industry have worked together and agreed on a reform regarding user rights. One might suggest, cynically, that the content industries only agreed to these proposals because they have been made too complex to be usable. But I do see potential uses here, based on the kinds of things I am asked about, even if only for a subsection of textual works that really are easily established orphans. If the provisions for pictorial and graphic works are long delayed, we will be no worse off than we are now. The only real downside would be if we accept this bill while a better alternative is possible, and regarding that possibility I agree with Georgia that no one should hold their breath.

3 thoughts on “How bad are the proposed Orphan Works bills?”

  1. Thanks, Kevin — this is a helpful distillation of two conflicting, complex potential additions to the already treacherous landscape of copyright regulation. When I started working in libraries almost 20 years ago, I readily embraced the fact that I was also going to have to become a computer geek to do well at my job. I am now wondering if I am also going to have to become a legal geek to continue. To my mind, a key phrase from your posting is “it has been a long time since a genuinely user-centered proposal has even been considered by Congress.” User-centric will never have the lobbying clout of business-centric, but I hope this trend can continue.

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