Definition: Orphan work

Definition: Orphan work | Glossary entry

Orphan work

There are a large number of works where the copyright owner for the work cannot be found. Such works are known as orphan works. An image or work may be orphaned for a number of reasons. Examples might include:

  • The name of the copyright owner may be known but that person cannot be found.
  • The rightful owner has died intestate or the estate is untraceable.
  • A corporation with copyright ownership has gone out of business.
  • An image or work has been lost, stolen or handed down and later resurfaced.
  • The copyright owner is unaware of the existence of the work in the market (eg: images taken from free-posting websites without ownership information or Exif data attached).
  • Other reasons where establishing ownership of the copyright is impossible.

Often it is impossible to find copyright owners. In a modern context orphan works can easily have accumulated high-value resale or licensing potential because of their historical interest or artistic value. However, any contact with the originator of the work has long since been lost, or both the provenience (where it was found) and provenance (where it has been since it was found) has become disconnected from the originator or owner of the copyright.

The possible resale of orphan works leaves the copyright owner with a potential loss of revenue. On the other hand, many current holders of orphan works are unable to publish or use the works for fear of legal action if the copyright owner appears. This effectively leaves the current holder of the copyright in a state of limbo – unable to use the image, and unable to sell it.

There are large bodies of works held by corporations, libraries, research organisations, historical societies, universities and individuals that are comprised of orphan works. These are potentially removed from the general circulation of publication until copyright has expired which could be decades into the future.

Copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the creator in the UK. Copyright expiry varies globally. You should check local law to verify the length of copyright in your country.

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
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