How Fair Use Can Help Solve the Orphan Works Problem

by Sabrina I. Pacifici on July 31, 2012

How Fair Use Can Help Solve the Orphan Works Problem, Jennifer M. Urban – University of California, Berkeley – School of Law, June 18, 2012. Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 27, 2012. UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 2089526

  • “Many works that libraries, archives, and historical societies, among others, would like to digitize and make available online are “orphan works,” that is, works for which the copyright holder either is unknown or cannot be located after a diligent search. Encountering orphan works can be stymieing because the lack of an owner means that there is no way to obtain permission to use them. While Congress nearly passed legislation to deal with the orphan works problem in 2008, its ultimate failure to enact this bill has left those who possess orphan works in limbo. Because of the risk of high statutory damages if an owner later shows up, nonprofit libraries and similar institutions have been reluctant to digitize these works and offer them to the public. The orphan status of these works thus creates a barrier to access to important cultural and historical information despite recent improvements in digitization technologies that could bring these works out of obscurity and make them much more widely useful. As such, there is international consensus that the “orphan works problem” must be addressed. This Article argues that legislation is not necessary to enable some uses of orphan works by nonprofit libraries and archives. Instead, the fair use doctrine in United States copyright law provides a partial solution. The Article addresses three basic questions: first, does fair use provide a viable basis on which libraries might digitize orphans? Second, does fair use provide a viable basis on which to make these orphans available to patrons or the public? Third, more generally, can or should fair use do any additional work in infringement analysis where the copyrighted work in question is an orphan?”
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