Orphan Works Legislation Would Be A Small But Important Step Toward Copyright Reform
from the baby-steps dept
We’ve long promoted the common-sense idea of orphan works legislation. Orphan works are works still under copyright whose present owners are unknown. This is a serious problem because there’s no way to license orphan works and a big risk of a subsequent infringement lawsuit if they’re used without a license. My co-blogger Jerry Brito has a post examining a pair of bills (one in the House, one in the Senate) that would address the problem. Under the proposal if someone is unable to find the owner of a copyrighted work after a diligent search, then the work could be used without the fear of a crippling lawsuit later. If a copyright holder comes along later, he won’t be able to obtain draconian punitive damages. Rather, the court would estimate how much a reasonable licensing royalty would have cost and assign that amount to the copyright holder. One of the best things about this proposal is that it would give an incentive to copyright holders to start placing copyright notices on their works, something that was mandatory until the 1970s. If more copyright holders marked their works, that would dramatically reduce the orphan works problem going forward, because it would be easier for people to find copyright holders and negotiate licenses.
Of course, it should be said that “statutory damages” for copyright infringement — which can be as high as $150,000 per work infringed — are way too high across the board. It will be great if we can reduce that burden for the users of orphan works, but I’d like to see punitive damages lowered across the board so we don’t see any more travesties of justice like the 2000 MP3.com case. In that case, the damages were so excessive that MP3.com couldn’t even afford to appeal. Orphan works legislation is a good first step toward reforming the copyright system, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.