23rd Aug 2019

Brussels tackles 'orphan works' problem in digital libraries

  • The proposal would end the limbo of orphan works (Photo: Leigh Phillips)

The European Commission on Tuesday (24 May) proposed a new law that would permit the digitisation of millions of books, magazine articles, films and audio recordings that currently rest in copyright limbo.

Until now, content that is technically still protected by copyright but whose authors cannot be traced in order to ask permission - content known as 'orphan works' - has not been able to be digitised by the likes of Google and represent one of the biggest hurdles for digitisation schemes. 

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Orphan works for example, according to the commission, amount to for example some 40 percent of what is contained in the British Library.

The new law would permit digitisation of orphan works after a 'diligent search' to attempt to locate the author. 

The commission proposes that those attempting to track down the copyright holder should depend on databases and registries such as the Accessible Registry of Rights Information and Orphan Works, which exists for the book publishing sector.

Brussels calls on stakeholders in other sectors to develop similar central rights information databases in order to streamline the process.

If after this 'diligent search' there is still no rights holder found, the work will then be declared an orphan work, a status that would be recognised across the EU and contained in a registry of such works.

The various digital library initiatives, from Google's efforts to the EU's own Europeana would then be able to post the work online. However, the law is also intended to benefit a range of digital efforts, from museums and archives to film heritage institutions and public broadcasters.

The new rules would also establish clear methods of redress for rights holder to assert their ownership and end the orphan work status.

The EU executive also announced that it hopes to overcome a similar problem - how to digitise out-of-print books.

The commission aims to develop new models for collective licensing for out-of-print works to enable large-scale digitisation, although in this case, the EU executive is still in talks with authors, publishers and collecting societies.

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