The Problem of Orphan Works

Information Today, Vol. 23, No. 4, p. 15, April 2006

3 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2010

Date Written: April 2006


The Internet provides a comparatively simple, comparatively cheap method for publishing and distributing content. With access to a server or web hosting service, some basic web creation software and a bit of time, anyone can become a publisher with a theoretical ability to access as many potential readers as the largest traditional publishing company.

When you add in digital conversion technologies a new world of content distribution opens up, a world with both positive and negative aspects for owners of copyrighted material. The negative aspects include file sharing, appropriation of graphics and artwork, and pirated software and movies. More positive is the ability to preserve, archive and distribute the scattered pieces of our social, cultural, and artistic histories. Universities, libraries, non-profit organizations and even some commercial companies are scouring their vaults to allow access to what was once virtually lost to history.

Much of this nearly lost material, however, is still protected by copyright. Determining if a copyright still exists and if so, who owns the copyright is often very difficult. If copyrighted works are used without permission, damages in the hundreds to thousands of dollars per infringing item may be awarded. For a library or non-profit organization, the risk is too much to take on and much of this history lost or obscure.

These lost copyrights have earned the name “Orphan works”. After the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision affirming the latest copyright term extension, Congress asked the Register of Copyrights to investigate the issue of Orphan Works, evaluate the challenges and identify possible solutions. After a series of round-table meetings and a lengthy comment period, the Copyright Office released its “Report on Orphan Works” on January 31.

Keywords: orphan works, copyright law, lawsuits, copyright infringement, file sharing, piracy, information industry, damages, multimedia, U. S. Copyright Office

Suggested Citation

Pike, George H., The Problem of Orphan Works (April 2006). Information Today, Vol. 23, No. 4, p. 15, April 2006, Available at SSRN:

George H. Pike (Contact Author)

Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-0295 (Phone)
312-503-9230 (Fax)

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