Orphan Works


In the world of books, the indefinite extension of copyright has had a perverse effect. It has created a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark. In most cases, the original publisher simply doesn’t find it profitable to keep these books in print. In other cases, the publishing company doesn’t know whether it even owns the work, since author contracts in the past were not as explicit as they are now. The size of this abandoned library is shocking: about 75 percent of all books in the world’s libraries are orphaned. Only about 15 percent of all books are in the public domain. A luckier 10 percent are still in print. The rest, the bulk of our universal library, is dark.

5. The Moral Imperative to Scan

The 15 percent of the world’s 32 million cataloged books that are in the public domain are freely available for anyone to borrow, imitate, publish or copy wholesale. Almost the entire current scanning effort by American libraries is aimed at this 15 percent. The Million Book Project mines this small sliver of the pie, as does Google. Because they are in the commons, no law hinders this 15 percent from being scanned and added to the universal library.

The approximately 10 percent of all books actively in print will also be scanned before long. Amazon carries at least four million books, which includes multiple editions of the same title. Amazon is slowly scanning all of them. Recently, several big American publishers have declared themselves eager to move their entire backlist of books into the digital sphere. Many of them are working with Google in a partnership program in which Google scans their books, offers sample pages (controlled by the publisher) to readers and points readers to where they can buy the actual book. No one doubts electronic books will make money eventually. Simple commercial incentives guarantee that all in-print and backlisted books will before long be scanned into the great library. That’s not the problem.

The major problem for large publishers is that they are not certain what they actually own. If you would like to amuse yourself, pick an out-of-print book from the library and try to determine who owns its copyright. It’s not easy. There is no list of copyrighted works. The Library of Congress does not have a catalog. The publishers don’t have an exhaustive list, not even of their own imprints (though they say they are working on it). The older, the more obscure the work, the less likely a publisher will be able to tell you (that is, if the publisher still exists) whether the copyright has reverted to the author, whether the author is alive or dead, whether the copyright has been sold to another company, whether the publisher still owns the copyright or whether it plans to resurrect or scan it. Plan on having a lot of spare time and patience if you inquire. I recently spent two years trying to track down the copyright to a book that led me to Random House. Does the company own it? Can I reproduce it? Three years later, the company is still working on its answer. The prospect of tracking down the copyright — with any certainty — of the roughly 25 million orphaned books is simply ludicrous.

Which leaves 75 percent of the known texts of humans in the dark. The legal limbo surrounding their status as copies prevents them from being digitized. No one argues that these are all masterpieces, but there is history and context enough in their pages to not let them disappear. And if they are not scanned, they in effect will disappear. But with copyright hyperextended beyond reason (the Supreme Court in 2003 declared the law dumb but not unconstitutional), none of this dark library will return to the public domain (and be cleared for scanning) until at least 2019. With no commercial incentive to entice uncertain publishers to pay for scanning these orphan works, they will vanish from view. According to Peter Brantley, director of technology for the California Digital Library, “We have a moral imperative to reach out to our library shelves, grab the material that is orphaned and set it on top of scanners.”

Autor: Klaus Graf

Historiker und Archivar, Blogger

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