Sunday, July 04, 2010

3 Million European Orphan Works and Counting!

The major digital issue, with the still to be resolved Google Book Settlement, is Orphan Works. These are works that are still in copyright but where the rights owner can’t be traced, or fully determined and many believe is a goldmine of works that can’t be legally digitised today. Different countries have different rules over length of copyright and the criteria under which they get impacted. Some claim the number of titles impacted is relatively small and that there is little value in them, other would suggest the opposite. Now a review involving responses from 22 cultural institutions and published by the European Commission claims, that not only books are affected but that there is a significant high percentage of orphan works among photographs and audiovisual collections and the numbers are high.

Google is not the only one looking at orphans and Europeana, which plays a key role in making Europe’s digital resources available online has called on the European Commission to establish a rights clearance system. Our own view is that it’s somewhat hypocritical for a rights industry that calls foul on infringement not to have even the bacsics of a rights registry today. After all,how can an industry be taken seriously when it doesn’t even cover the basics?

The new report claims on orphan books, a‘conservative estimate’ of 3 million orphan books (13 % of the total number of in-copyright books). The British Library in their report claimed that orphan works represent over 40% of all in-copyright material.

The older the books the higher the percentage of orphan works. ‘Vast numbers of items in the collections of the consulted cultural institutions have uncertain copyright status. Even when institutions are intentionally focusing their digitisation efforts on what they believe is public domain material, a lot of effort to establish the exact copyright status is required. Only material from as far as pre-1870 may relatively safely be assumed to be in the public domain, but it turns out that the oldest book still in copyright in the UK dates back to 1859.’

The issue is not confined to books. Film archives from across Europe categorized after a search for right holders claimed 129 000 film works are orphan and works that can be presumed to be orphan without actually searching for the right holders augments the figure to approximately 225 000. In the UK 95 % of newspapers from before 1912 are orphan and a survey amongst museums in the UK also found that the rights holders of 17 million photographs (that is 90% of the total collections of photographs of the museums) could not be traced.

The Accessible Registries of Rights Information and Orphan Works, ( ARROW project) aims to make the procedure for managing and identifying rights ownership more efficient and has been working to connect the databases of national libraries, publishers and rights organisations across Europe and although there is must noise and initial activity much has to be done for it to even effectively scratch the surface of the issue.

What the European exercise shows us is that the issue is not small, is not going away ,covers different media sectors and that there is no silver digital bullet. Everyone wants these works to be made available within the digital world but it is not a simple case of emulating Google’s attempted land grab of orphans, but about setting up a registrar that is available to all and that the commercial interests of the rights owners are protected from commercial abuse.

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