Copyright law prevents access to millions of 'orphan works'

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Access to over 50 million items held in trust by publicly funded agencies such as libraries, museums, archives and universities cannot be made available online because their rights holders are not known or easy to trace.

‘In from the Cold’, a report by the UK's Strategic Content Alliance and the Collections Trust, shows that millions of so-called "orphan works" - photographs, recordings, texts and other ephemera from the last 100 years - risk becoming invisible because of copyright restrictions.

The report argues that the UK is in real danger of losing 20th century materials due to the current copyright laws, the levels of resources needed to trace the rights for each orphan work and the potential lock down of access to these important works. Of the 13 million works represented in the on-line survey, it would take roughly six million days to trace the rights holders, or around 16,000 years.

Naomi Korn, Strategic Content Alliance’s Intellectual Property consultant and author of the report said, 'Many orphan works, like documentary photographs and sound recordings are of low commercial value but of high cultural and historic importance. The desire for a Digital Britain is not restricted to broadband connectivity alone. It requires us to minimise the overheads in terms of time, money and effort to unlock low commercial value but high education and cultural “orphan work” content for the benefit of the British people from the archives of all kinds that they fund.'

Over 500 organisations took part in the online survey to establish the impact of orphan works across the museums, archives, libraries and universities.