Orphans in Brussels

Oktober 8, 2009

On 26 October 2009, the European Commission will organise a Public Hearing on Orphan Works in Brussels. „Orphan works“ are still under copyright protection but the rightsholders are unknown. Many of those works are out of print. Since only a small fraction of the countless books that have been published during the 20th century are commercially successful over the whole period during which they are under copyright protection (lifetime of the author plus 70 years), and since there is no copyright registry, the „orphan works problem“ concerns a large part of the scientific and literary production of the 20th century. Works of another kind – pictures, films, etc. – may of course also be “orphan works”.

In the framework of many digitalisation projects – the best-known of which is the Google Book project, but there are many others, e.g., Europeana, the organisers consider making available orphan works by scanning and digitalising copies of them that are found in libraries or elsewhere. It would be a wealth for the public and for researchers. However, to do that you need the consent of authors and/or publishers. What is to be done if you can’t find them -? That is the „orphan works problem“ in a nutshell.

Google was to obtain the right to scan orphan works under the Google Book Settlement, which was recently thwarted due to copyright and antitrust concerns and is now being renegotiated. Google would have paid a share of the revenue generated by the making available of the books (orphan works and others) to the „Book Registry”, an association representing (American) authors and publishers, i.e., a collecting society, which then would have distributed the money.

That would appear to be a pleasant task indeed given that many of the rightsholders represented by this collecting society will probably never surface.

Accordingly, the „orphan works“ problem raises fundamental questions on access to a large part of 20th century science and culture and, secondly, on the allocation of potentially large sums of money.

So, now the Commission is organising a public hearing on the issue.

Is it really? – “The maximum number of participants is limited to 80. Therefore, registrations will be accepted in the order in which they are received, although priority will be given to those with a direct interest in the subject. Should the number of registrations exceed the number of available places, the organisers reserve the right to limit the attendance to one person per organisation.”

That is not the appropriate way to discuss a topic of such fundamental importance.

By the way, next week the Frankfurt Book Fair will be taking place. It is a pity that those with a “direct interest in the topic” are conducting their discussion not here, where the interested public is, but in the smallest conference room that exists in Brussels.

Update Nov 10, 2009: The German collecting society VG Wort, the German Publishers’ Association and the German National Library have proposed a licensing scheme backed up by a statutory exception to copyright (see the links in the German version of this article) while EBLIDA, the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations, proposes a statutory exception in favour of digitisation projects that would not include a duty to pay a fee or royalties.

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