The two orphan works bills currently under consideration in Congress share many common features, the most obvious one being that both address the problem of orphan works by drastically reducing the penalties for using such a work without permission. They also both would create a very burdensome process for determining that a work is sufficiently likely to be an orphan to justify the reduced penalties in the presumably rare case that the user was mistaken.
These bills have gotten mixed reactions from the library and copyright communities in higher education. The American Library Association has indicated some level of support for the Senate version of the bill, while Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have both strongly endorsed the Congressional efforts. Several individual voices for which the academic library community has great respect, however, have indicated opposition. Kenneth Crews suggests his reservations, while also criticizing the campaign against the bills, in this blog post, while Lawrence Lessig’s opposition was expressed forcefully in this New York Times Op-Ed.
My opinion is that the bills might do some good in a few situations, but they will not accomplish much. Part of the problem is that they are “remedy-based” solutions; they simply remove some of the risk attendant on using orphan works or, to look at it from the other perspective, the protection copyright owners have against infringement (Lessig puts the situation this way, but I am afraid that this formulation doesn’t recognize that for most of the works we are talking about, there really is no rights owner whose protection would be decreased). But in any case, these bills would do nothing to curb the ever growing number of orphan works. So I want to examine some of the alternatives to a remedy-based solution to orphan works and consider changes in the law that might actually reduce the number of orphaned works that now burden our copyright system.
Lessig suggests one such strategy in his NYT piece when he argues that a more efficient and fair solution to orphan works would be to reestablish a renewal process and give new materials only a short initial term. Thus authors and artists who did not plan to commercialize their works after that short initial period (during which the vast majority of works exhaust their value) would allow those works to pass into the public domain. Those who did plan to continue to protect and exploit their works would pursue a very simple, inexpensive renewal. This would clear reduce the orphan works problem going forward, although it would not help with the many orphans already in our collections. The biggest objection to this plan, however, is that it reduces “formalities” into the enjoyment of copyright in contradiction to obligations the US agreed to when it adhered to the Berne Convention and the TRIPs agreement. Those international treatises do not permit formalities, which is a big reason we went to automatic protection in the first place. It is true that the US has been quite inconsistent in complying with the various obligations we took on with Berne and TRIPs, so this objection is probably not insurmountable. But it would be a major argument to be used against such a change, and it would probably prevent Congress from enacting a renewal requirement.
There are a number of other ways to imagine changes in the law that would reduce the problem of orphan works, either by focusing on the commercialization of particular works, as Lessig’s suggestion does, or by taking advantage of efficiencies gained by returning ownership of unexploited works to the original authors or creators. An upcoming post or two will examine some of those other possibilities.