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The recent decision presented by the honorable Judge Chin on the matter of copyright infringement in the case The Authors Guild v. Google Inc. raised numerous issues in the arena of Intellectual Property. In addition to opposing the “opt-out” stipulation written into the settlement, Judge Chin also contested the way Google Inc. approached and viewed “orphan works” in relation to digitizing books where no copyright owner or recipient could be located or reached. In Judge Chin’s opinion, the matter of orphan works should not to be decided by private enterprise, but is rather a matter for Congress to decide. In so deciding, Judge Chin refers to certain opinions issued by the Copyright Office, as well as legislation that was originally proposed back in 2008.
"Orphaned works" are defined as copyrighted works for which the owner cannot be identified, but which someone wants to use. In other words, works for which the potential user cannot locate or identify the actual owner of the work in order to seek proper permission. Under the current legal structure, even if a potential user makes a diligent effort to find the owner in order to seek permission, the user’s risk of copyright liability for such use is not eliminated because there is always a possibility, however remote, that a copyright owner could bring an infringement action after that use has begun. Although it is difficult to know precisely how many orphaned works are around, one 2009 study conducted by the JISC (Strategic Content Alliance) in the United Kingdom calculated that as many as 25 million such works existed in the libraries, museums and archives of that country. In such situations, productive and beneficial use of the work – something the concept of copyright is designed to encourage – is impeded. It is such a real problem that many organizations, like the Society of American Archivists, have issued statements of best practices to assist their members in dealing with orphaned works. But many potential creators are not members of such an organization and don’t know how to approach clearing an orphaned work for use.
Based on a report on orphaned works prepared by the Copyright Office in 2006 at the requests of Senators Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy, the “Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008” (S. 2913) was ultimately introduced by Senator Leahy on April 24, 2008. It quickly passed by a unanimous vote on September 26, 2008. The act was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it unfortunately lies dormant or, more likely, has stalled or died in committee chambers, suffering the fate of many good laws. Several earlier actions which served the same purpose, such as Copyright Modernization Act of 2006 (H.R. 6052) suffered similar fates. The proposed 2008 act outlined specific guidelines for individuals pursuing and currently using orphan works. The following is a brief overview of the proposed bill and its major provisions.
Under the proposed legislation, in order to use an orphan work, a person would be required to follow very specific steps in order to avoid financial and legal liability for infringement. These rules fall under the section entitled “Conditions for Eligibility,” which outlines the following as steps the person utilizing the orphaned works would need to takes in order to limit liability:
- provide extensive evidence that the infringer performed a detailed search in “good faith” to locate and identify the copyright holder and was unable to locate the copyright holder;
- acknowledge the copyright holder in an appropriate manner, assuming the copyright holder was known with a reasonable amount of confidence (a form of "moral rights");
- provide a mark or symbol in some regard indicating the work is used under this section;
- assert in an initial pleading the eligibility for such limitations; and
- provides documentation for the search undertaken to locate and identify the copyright holder.
The exceptions to the above guidelines for limited remedy collection do not apply to an "infringer" if: 1) the infringer receives notice of infringement and fails to negotiate in good faith with the claimant or 2) fails to provide payment for the use of the infringed material in a reasonable time period after reaching an agreement with the copyright holder.
Additionally, the individual must search with what the legislation described as "diligent effort” to locate the copyright holder. The phrase "diligent effort" requires, at a minimum: 1) a search of the records at the Copyright Office through the medium of the Internet 2) a search of “reasonably available sources of copyright authorship and ownership information” 3) use of intangible and tangible tools and publications, and where necessary, assistance of others and 4) use of databases available to the public, including those accessible by the Internet.
If someone utilizing an orphaned work follows these guidelines, any award for monetary relief “may not be made other than an order requiring the infringer to pay reasonable compensation to the owner of the exclusive right under the infringed copyright for the use of the infringed work.” Injunctive relief remains an additional remedy offered to the owner in order to prevent or restrain any further infringement action.
The act apparently died its quiet death because of opposition from many copyright groups and, in particular, notable expert Lawrence Lessig, who opposed the bill because of its vague definition of the "diligent efforts" required to avoid liability. Some of these opposition groups even referred to the proposed legislation as a “license to steal.” The Register of Copyrights at the time, Marybeth Peters, believes to the contrary that the orphans works situation is a problem that is "overdue" and that the "pending legislation is both fair and responsible (See Marybeth Peter’s open letter).
This issue is particularly of concern for musicians and artists, since a large number of old recordings are no longer commercially available because of an uncertainty as to who owns them. In addition, creators of new recordings must often abandon projects if a work is "orphaned," for fear of liability. This is a loss not only for the artists, but for the public and our collective culture, i.e., the continuum.
Officially, legislator still deem the legislation to be "pending." In his speech in 2009 in from of the World Copyright Summit, Senator Orrin Hatch state he “continue’s to be very active on passing orphan works legislation.” He continued to say:
For years, I have been working with industry stakeholders and copyright experts, including Marybeth Peters, Register of Copyrights, to pass orphan works legislation. The bill seeks to unite users and copyright owners, and to ensure that copyright owners are compensated for the use of their works. I couldn’t agree more with Register Peters when she said, “A solution to the orphan works problem is overdue and the pending legislation is both fair and responsible.
Judge Chin felt that the Google settlement would have given Google an effective monopoly over orphan works, and that was one of his primary rationales in deciding the way he did. His rejection of the Google settlement highlights this important issue and brings it to the light of public awareness again. Anyone with an interest in intellectual property should contact their senators and representatives and ask why a more diligent effort, no pun intended, has not been made to address a problem that still exists, despite the fact that there has been no movement on the bill in three years. With President Obama’s pro-intellectual property agenda, the time may right to solve this incredible hole in U.S. Copyright law.