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Orphan works (N)

An orphan work is a copyrighted work whose owner is impossible to identify or contact. This inability to request permission from the copyright owner often means orphan works cannot be used in new works nor digitized, except when fair use exceptions apply.

"Due to their nature, the requirements of copyright law and the lack of fit for purpose solutions, orphan works represent a massive issue for the mass digitisation and publication (including online) of assets owned by cultural heritage institutions across Europe. 

For many years, risk management has provided the only possible option for cultural heritage institutions to make their orphan works available online. 


A checklist for risk management 

It is important to stress that risk management is an institutional choice. It should always be carefully considered against any likely risks and costs, as well as documented. If your institution decides to reproduce its orphan works, then the following risk assessment checklist could be useful:

    • Keep records of all attempts made to contact the rights holders.

    • Accompany the reproduction of orphan works with attribution statements where known.

    • Introduce notice and take down policies and procedures to enable the removal of orphan works should the rights holders come forward.

    • Reproduce images in low resolution.

    • Assess the specific risks of reproducing orphan works on a case by case basis, for example, according to the type of work, subject matter and age, to reduce the risk of high profile rights holders coming forward.  

    • Restrict any use to 'Non-Commercial research or private study.'

    • Put money aside in case rights holders come forward and/or take out insurance

    • Carry out reasonable searches. These can include image Recognition Software – use free sites like TinEye and Advanced Google Search.

    • Check the acknowledgements and notes of published works/exhibition catalogues about the author.

    • Check the internet for information about the creator of the material and keep a record of all searches where appropriate.

    • Check the WATCH file on the Internet for information about artists and writers (entered through WATCH). 

    • Check other organisations which might hold works by that artist/creator and contact them to see whether they can provide any information about the rights holder.

    • Check with collecting societies.

    • Establish whether the work has been lent/bequeathed/given by the rights holder. If so, can the person who gave the material provide any contact information for the rights holder?

    • Check whether the material is held in a Picture Library or stock photography agency.

    • Check if the work by an academic, student, member of support staff or anyone else directly (or indirectly) connected with your organisation.

    • Place an advert in a relevant trade journal or magazine in order to trace the rights holder.

    • If the artist or author is still living, then you may be able to find their contact address through online directory enquiries."