Digital Orphans: The Massive Cultural Black Hole On Our Horizon

from the wake-up dept

Imagine you are a researcher in 2050, researching the history of the Black Lives Matter movement. But you've stumbled across a problem: almost every Tweet, post, video or photograph with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter that you want to use in your work is an orphan work (i.e., works whose owners are impossible to track down, but are still covered by copyright). You'd like to ask permission but all you've got to go on are usernames from defunct accounts. Where do you go from here?

Last week, the Copyright Office accepted responses to its Report on Orphan Works and Mass Digitization. (Full disclosure, I represented the Internet Archive in this proceeding, but all views here are my own). But that Report has no answers for our hypothetical researcher; it doesn't once mention or consider the question of what we are going to do about the billions of orphan works that are being "born digital" every day.

Instead, the Copyright Office proposes to "solve" the orphan works problem with legislation that would impose substantial burdens on users that would only work for one or two works at any given time. And because that system is so onerous, the Report also proposes a separate licensing regime to support so-called "mass digitization," while simultaneously admitting that this regime would not really be appropriate for orphans (because there's no one left to claim the licensing fees). These proposals have been resoundingly criticized for many valid reasons.

Another reason to add to the pile is that it is exclusively focused on analog orphans -- books, photographs and other materials in physical formats gathering dust in small local library collections or arcane institutional collections. These materials are culturally important, and scholars have shown that many have fallen into a 20th-Century digital black hole. But the black hole that could engulf digital orphans is poised to be ultramassive in comparison.

Each day, billions of photos are uploaded to platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Flickr and What's App. Similarly, 400 hours of video per minute are uploaded to YouTube alone. While some professionals use these platforms commercially to exploit their creative work, the vast majority of today's copyright owners probably don't even know what copyright is. They are simply documenting and sharing their lives. Look, for example, to the rise in popularity of social video sharing services such as SocialCam,, Periscope, and Meerkat.

Most of the content online today is created by amateurs. Much of it is also created anonymously or pseudonymously, with no real name attached to the account. And the vast majority of users of these platforms are under 35. To make matters worse, as new services become popular, users will inevitably move on, leaving their accounts inactive. What will become of the photos, blog posts, videos and other content that is posted online every day -- much of it being created by teenagers with no interest or expectation of commercial exploitation -- that will be left behind on these platforms? Copyright law will protect those works for 70 years after these prolific teenagers die.

We are looking down the barrel of a serious crisis in terms of society's ability to access much of the culture that is being produced and shared online today. As many of these born-digital works become separated from their owners, perhaps because users move on to newer and cooler platforms, or because the users never wanted their real identity associated with this stuff in the first place, we will soon have billions upon billions of digital orphans on our hands. If those orphans survive the various indignities that await them -- host platforms going under, being deleted for more server space -- we are going to need a way to think about digital orphans. They clearly will not need to be digitized so the Copyright Office's mass digitization proposal would not apply. However, the public deserves access to the cultural heritage being amassed on digital platforms.

It might be easy to dismiss these concerns, to say that there's little social value in much of the content being created by amateurs. But I suspect researchers and historians of the future will beg to differ.

New technologies have already allowed us to develop whole new systems of communication that have no non-digital equivalent, no physical record: hashtags, emoji, reaction .gifs, LoLcats, just to name a few. Remember the Occupy Movement? And the "we are the 99%" meme? People often told their personal economic stories by holding up a handwritten sign in a photograph that would be posted to Twitter or Tumblr. Any understanding of the consequences of the economic collapse of the late 2000s would be incomplete without this digital context.

The means for creating extremely rich records of our daily lives are everywhere. People are voluntarily and enthusiastically documenting big events and small moments. Technology platforms are now places of record, although they are not necessarily designed as such. Our very way of knowing about ourselves as a society will be shaped by the sorts of access we will have to these digital records, not only of major political events like elections, but also of everyday life.

We need to start thinking about these digital orphans today, before we have a culture crisis on our hands. Perhaps this should be our call to rethink the broken policies that created the orphan works problem in the first place: extremely long terms and lack of formalities. Perhaps we could pass legislation that would establish a safe harbor for those who rely in good faith on rights information available in the Copyright Office's registration database. Perhaps fair use will evolve to allow full public access to orphans.

Of course any solution will also have to manage the significant privacy issues that will pervade these works as well, but that's a problem for another article. But anything as burdensome as the Copyright Office's current proposal will be woefully inadequate to handle the staggering numbers of born-digital orphans in the future.

Lila Bailey is a copyright attorney practicing in the Bay Area. She also teaches Internet Law at Berkeley Law.

Filed Under: copyright, history, orphan works, research, social media

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  1. icon
    PaulT (profile), 15 Oct 2015 @ 1:27am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "I don't think the original author has that in mind either. It's the more substantial works that matter."

    Well, for historical purposes it doesn't matter what the author had in mind. It never has, and contemporary trivialities can be mportant in understanding the overall context of an era.

    As for substantial - again, who's the arbiter of what "counts" and what doesn't?

    "The result is culture (or whatever it may be) that is not lost, not orphaned."

    For a while. But, Twitter have been blocking 3rd party tools and messages often never leave Twitter. What happens when Twitter no longer exists?

    "For all that was created in that time, we have access to a very small amount that has been retained."

    This is true. But, what remains is still potentially valuable, even the trivial stuff.

    "Today's digital world means we already have way more "culture" in formats that generally won't be lost."

    As far as you know. Physical media degrades, file formats become obsolete and things like DRM are applied to deliberately make them harder to access. We've already lost more digital data than you care to think of, probably because you can't see the world past what interests you personally.

    "The actual volume of it all makes it very likely that most of it won't be considered relevant or important."

    Most of what we have from other periods isn't either. But, a contemporary at the time might not understand what's valuable to us now and what's not.

    It's just reality, not sure why you have a problem with a simple concept.

    "By trying to limit things to works you consider valuable, you in effect limit culture to your preferences. Is that really fair?"

    You seem to be confused. I've advocated no limits, you're the one trying to argue that some should not be collected since it doesn't matter. Are you actually losing sight of whatever you were trying to argue? or did you think I was arguing something else because I happened to agree that some is more valuable than others (while never advocating that the less valuable should not be gathered, of course).

    "All you have is personal attacks?"

    Cherry picking again while ingoring the overall points I'm trying to convey. All while retaining the smug delusion that you're somehow making better ones? Typical.

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