February 1, 2007 ·
For almost a decade now, many of us have been pushing for copyright reform that would address the problems of orphan works. That was a key motivation behind the attack on the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. It was the focus of my op-ed in the NY Times after we lost in that attack. That op-ed proposed one system for dealing with orphan works — register your copyright after 50 years and pay $1; if you don’t the work passes into the public domain. That proposal was the basis of Congresswoman Lofgren’s “Public Domain Enhancement Act,” which was partly responsible for Senators Hatch and Leahy asking the Copyright Office to study the problem of “orphan works.”
The Copyright Office’s report is brilliant. Its proposal is less brilliant. Its essence is that a work is deemed an “orphan” if you can’t discover the copyright owner after a “reasonably diligent search.” If the work is deemed an orphan, then the copyright owner’s rights are curtailed.
I think this both goes too far, and not far enough.
Too far: By applying the remedy to all works immediately, the work imposes an unfair burden on many existing copyright holders — who have followed a rule which since 1978 has said, don’t worry about such details; it puts an especially unfair burden on foreign and unpublished copyright holders. In my view, photographers and other existing copyright holders are right to be outraged at the proposal. Hiding under the cover of “reasonably diligent search,” much of their work will be — unfairly — threatened.
Not far enough: The trigger to the Copyright Office’s Orphan Works Remedy is whether a copyright owner can be found with a “reasonably diligent search.” That standard is just mush. The report outlines six factors to be considered in determining whether a search is “reasonably diligent.” The effect of this complexity is simply make-work for lawyers. Libraries and archives will be unfairly burdened. Users won’t be able to achieve any real security.
The alternative I propose is a kind of copyright maintenance procedure (like patent maintenance). It differs from the Copyright Office’s proposal in three critical ways:
First: It applies just to old works, not to new works. For works after enactment, copyright owners get a 14 year grace period where they need not worry at all about any orphan work requirement. For work published between 1978 and today, there’s no orphan work requirement until 2021. And for work published before 1978 (in a time when formalities were the norm), there is no requirement until 2012.
Second: It applies to published “United States works” only — not to foreign works or unpublished work.
Third: The requirement it imposes after the 14/5 year delay is registration. But not registration with the copyright office; instead, registration with a private registrar approved by the copyright office. No government run registries here. Instead, something more like a DNS for copyright.
This chart at the top summarizes the differences.
You can download a one-page description of the proposal here.
You can download or stream the (35 minute) presentation here, or watch it on Google Video below.