One of the members of our local branch of the SCBWI brought up the issue of orphan works at a recent gathering. I was unfamiliar with this topic and decided to do a little research. An orphan work is a copyright work where it is difficult or impossible to identify or contact the copyright owner. United States law states that a creative work such as a blog post, web design, podcast, video, illustration or photo is protected by Copyright as soon as you create it, and until 100 years after you die.
At this point there is no central data base for copyrighted works, so potential users of copyrighted works, e.g., filmmakers or biographers, must assume that many works they might use are copyrighted. They must individually investigate the copyright status of each work they plan to use. With no central database of copyright-holders, identifying and contacting copyright-holders can sometimes be difficult; those works that fall into this category may be considered “orphaned”. As a result of this, historically significant images are removed from documentaries and never reach the public because ownership cannot be determined.
Congress has tried to pass an Orphan Works bill that would create a central data base for these works, but registration could prove to be costly for the creators. This act would also render all unregistered material “orphaned” and thus available for use to the public without compensation to the owner.
So what can be done to help this problem? One group has started an organization PLUS– The Picture Licensing Universal System (a cooperative, multi-industry initiative) is a three part system that clearly defines and categorizes image usage around the world, from granting and acquiring licenses to tracking and managing them well into the future. For a nominal fee, the PLUS registry will manage illustrations, photos, and other graphic works making it easy for others to track the work down.
Illustrators may also want to check out the American Society of Illustrators Partnership for more information.
I think this is an idea worth looking into further. If anyone has more information about orphan works or the Orphan Works bill please let me know.
Writing on the Sidewalk