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“Orphan Works” to Find New Homes

“Orphan Works” to Find New Homes

There are an estimated 91 million “orphan works”, according to the UK government. These are artworks, photographs, diaries and letters and other historically important documents, of which the copyright owners cannot be located. And now, under a new licensing scheme in the UK, some of these works will be made accessible to the public for the first time.

The change in rules means that filmmakers, publishers and museums who have carried out a thorough search for the rightful owners – and have paid a fee – will be able to use works. Some of these works would have been in their possession for decades already, and they will finally be able to use them.

Copyright laws in the UK dictate that 70 years after the death of an author or creator – with no surviving family – the works become public domain. This means that they can be used freely by members of the public. But what happens if the work was never published in the first place?

Well, the Tate gallery has 12 unpublished pieces of literary works by the Cornish artist Alfred Wallis. Wallis died in 1942, so his 70 years was up in 2012, and has no surviving family. Because of the changes in copyright laws, the gallery would be able to reproduce these works and the public would finally be able to enjoy them.

The V&A Museum of Childhood would also be able to use some photographs for Lines Brothers, a toy manufacturer that went bankrupt in 1971. Not only has the museum tried and failed to trace the owners of the photos, but the studio they were taken in is also thought to have closed.

The Museum of the Mind, which cares for the archives of the psychiatric institutes Bethlem Royal Hospital (colloquially known as Bedlam), Maudsley Hospital, and Warlingham Park Hospital. Although the museum is already allowed to use the creative works of a couple of known patients of Bethlem Hospital, the new guidelines would mean that anonymously created art from patients could also be used.

There is quite a number of unpublished plans and maps that the National Records of Scotland know the name of the author of. However, they have been unable to find their families, so they could finally put these documents to use without breaching any laws.

It might appear as though institutes are the only winners from the licensing scheme, but it works on the other side too. For example, the RAF Museum has photographs taken by Arthur Ernest Gibson. Gibson is considered one of the best aviation photographers of his generation. After he died in 1992, the museum spent a long time trying to track down his family, but to no avail. But now, using the new diligent search guidance from the government, the museum believes Gibson’s family has been found.

The regulations also stipulate that rightful owners can still come forward. As long as they are able to prove ownership of any works that have been released through the scheme, then they would be entitled to ask for future payment for use of the works.

There are, of course, concerns from photographers that it might be possible for people to just take their images from the internet, without incurring any costs or having to go through the proper lines. They are worried that people would claim to have searched for the rightful owner, not found anyone and proceeded anyway. But the requirement for a “diligent” search, as well as the application process and fee, should prevent people from taking and reusing things from the internet without permission.

“The scheme has been designed to protect rights holders and give them a proper return if they reappear,” said Baroness Neville-Rolfe, Intellectual Property Minister. “[This is] while ensuring that citizens and consumers will be able to access more of our country’s great creations more easily.”


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