New “orphan works” rule in UK makes millions of creative works available for public display

One of the most nagging problems in copyright law is what to do about so-called orphan works: artistic creations that have no known owner, but that nonetheless can’t be shared or displayed because doing so could lead to a punishing lawsuit. This situations forces museums and libraries to keep parts of their collection off the internet, and bars public access to millions of cultural works.

Fortunately, the British government has finally found a solution that it says will result in more than 91 million works becoming available for the first time.

The solution takes the form of a licensing scheme that lets anyone pay a token amount (reportedly ten pence) into a trust, and in return get permission to use an orphan work. In the unlikely event the author of an orphan work comes forward, they can assert control of the work and receive money from the trust.

As the Independent reports, the scheme will let institutions like the Tate and the Imperial War Museum publish digital reproductions of famous paintings (like ‘Blue Ship’ shown above) and Royal Air Force photography. A trove of Scottish maps, as well as catalogues featured in the Museum of Childhood, are also slated to appear online for the first time.

The new UK scheme is useful for the museums, and for anyone else who wants to distribute orphan works without fear of a lawsuit, but it still does not address the underlying problem: copyright terms are far too long, and fail to provide a rationale balance between rewarding creators and ensuring public access to culture (instead, copyright is too often treated as an ATM by greedy estates — like that of Arthur Conan Doyle — and their lawyers).

A better solution would be to shorten copyright terms, and require authors and their estates to file occasional renewals, which would let owners protect the most valuable works while releasing the rest of the creations to the public domains.

To read more about how the U.K. orphan works scheme works, see the IPKat (my favorite blog for European intellectual property news).