Orphan works to come in from the cold

Most researchers are familiar with the ’70 year rule’ – that copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author. But this currently only applies to published works. As mentioned in our previous blog post, the copyright of unpublished manuscripts, such as handwritten literary drafts or musical scores, remains with the author’s descendants until 2039, regardless of the age of the manuscript. Where a descendant cannot be traced, the work is classed as orphan.

Orphan works cannot be reproduced in any form until 2039. The British Library estimate that orphan works constitute 40% of works held by European archives – a vast reserve of knowledge unable to be shared beyond the confines of the reading room. Of particular concern are archives held in actively decaying formats such as celluloid film and audio tape. If such a work is orphan, it is currently illegal for archivists to create even a single digital copy in order to safeguard a recording’s future.

The news that the UK Government has accepted the recommendations of the Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property, and the changes this will mean for copyright law, will be a great relief to those caring for and working with archives.

The Government plans to implement a Digital Copyright Exchange. This will allow archives to purchase a copyright licence for a nominal fee, which will allow them to reproduce and share the orphan works in their care. The funds will be held by the Exchange against the possibility of the copyright holder coming forward and seeking recompense. In the event that this does not occur, the funds will be released after a reasonable period of time, and allocated for social or cultural purposes.

SCOLAR will report on confirmed changes to copyright law when they are announced this autumn.

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