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Contracts, Orphan Works, and Copyright Norms: What Role for Berne and TRIPs?

WORKING WITHIN THE BOUNDARIES OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, Rochelle Cooper Dreyfuss, Harry First, Diane Leenheer Zimmerman, eds., Oxford University Press, 2009

Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 09-200

22 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2009  

Jane C. Ginsburg

Columbia University - Law School

Date Written: February 15, 2009


This Chapter addresses the extremes of private ordering, and the extent to which the principal multilateral copyright instruments, the Berne Convention and the TRIPs Accord, limit the range of State responses to the problems encountered at the far ends of the copyright-contract spectrum. At one end, we encounter private ordering at its most aggressive, in which private parties enter into agreements (or, more likely, the stronger party coerces the weaker parties, who may be mass market consumers) to protect subject matter or rights excluded from the ambit of copyright's exclusivity. At the other end, the difficulties arise not from overweening sellers forcing their way with timid buyers, but from failure to find the seller at all. The buyers, would-be copyright exploiters, are unable to locate the right holders from whom to negotiate a license to use their works. In this case, no contract can be concluded, unless the State steps in for the absent right holder. In the first case, a contract has been concluded, but at a cost that the State could not exact were it to seek the same result through public ordering.

The analysis of Part I proceeds in three steps. First, a review of the relevant Berne-TRIPs provisions will identify and assess the "maxima." Second, consideration will be given to whether the prescriptive force of the maxima extends to extra-copyright means of achieving copyright-prohibited objectives. Finally, an inquiry will be made into whether the mandatory exclusions and restrictions apply only to foreign Berne Union works or whether the treaties can also be read to compel their domestic application. Part II shifts from private ordering to State-imposed licenses and other interventions that limit the exercise of exclusive rights. Where Part I inquires whether current multilateral instruments limit private parties' freedom effectively to expand the scope of copyright subject matter or rights, Part II examines whether those same instruments constrain State responses to systemic failures of private ordering by limiting the remedies available against the unauthorized exercise of otherwise exclusive rights. The example of failed private ordering that will be considered concerns the problem of "orphan works," where the inability to find right holders means that would-be exploiters cannot enter into private agreements with them.

This exploration of the extremes of the copyright-contract spectrum finds little prescriptive force in the Berne-TRIPs "maxima" with respect to private agreements to protect subject matter the treaties exclude from copyright's ambit. By contrast, Berne-TRIPs "minima" can meaningfully constrain a State's prerogative to impose compulsory licenses or limit remedies when private agreements cannot be concluded, for example because a willing buyer cannot find the seller (willing or otherwise). The minima should not, however, be regarded as an impediment to resolving the "orphan works" problem. Rather, attention to the minima should enable States to shape an orphan works regime which both permits the exploitation of unlocatable right holders' works, and fairly compensates those right holders who, notwithstanding a rigorously diligent but unsuccessful search, subsequently turn up and object to the uses made of their works.

Suggested Citation

Ginsburg, Jane C., Contracts, Orphan Works, and Copyright Norms: What Role for Berne and TRIPs? (February 15, 2009). Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 09-200; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 09-200. Available at SSRN:

Jane C. Ginsburg (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

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