University of Michigan to stop worrying about lawsuits, start releasing orphan works

Bobbyg sez, "The University of Michigan Library will be sharing digital copies of their orphan works, that is, copyrighted works which have no identifiable owner, with the University community. Paul Courant, the University Librarian, says that the project is integral to the mission of the library, and that the sharing of the orphan works is a 'fair use' of the material, stating that 'sharing these orphan works does no economic harm to any person or organization, while not doing so harms scholarship and learning...'"

The Orphan Works Project is being led by the Copyright Office of the University of Michigan Library to identify orphan works. Orphan works are books that are subject to copyright but whose copyright holders cannot be identified or contacted. Our immediate focus is on digital books held by HathiTrust, a partnership of major research institutions and libraries working to ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future.

This effort is funded by the HathiTrust and is part of U-M Library's ongoing efforts to understand the true copyright status of works in its collection. As part of this effort, the Library will develop policies, processes, and procedures that can be used by other HathiTrust partners to replicate a task that will ultimately require the hand-checking of millions of volumes.

Orphan Works Project

(Thanks, Bobbyg!)


  1. Right now, someone is trying to figure out how to sue them for economic gain. You know in your heart that this is true.

  2. Bravo! If economic value of these works is so low that owner either doesn’t bother or isn’t aware of the existance of them, the liability to the university should be minimal. So it’s a good thing that the library has decided not to be swayed by the small chance being sued for small ammounts of money.

  3. Bravo/a. I have no idea what will come of this, but pulling the default position of libraries, archives, and other institutions from one of debilitating fear or lawsuits to one of bravely sharing is something long past needed

  4. Yeah, I agree. And perhaps, if some dumbass sues them, they can band together with other like-minded folks and get some of these laws seriously looked at/overturned…

  5. Per the FAQ: These works will not be available to the Internet community as a whole, only to members of the UM community. Members of the general public will only be able to access these works if they are physically in a UM library.

  6. I, for one, stand in awe of Colonel Hathi, and will never forget this effort by HathiTrust.

  7. The idea is that there won’t be anyone with standing available to sue them, hence the copyright office’s significant investigations to ensure that there is no reachable copyright holder for each released work (plus the posting of the bibliographic info for 90 days before the release).

  8. Too bad there’s not some burden on copyright holders to make themselves available for people requesting permission to use their content. So if someone made a good faith effort to find the copyright holder and couldn’t do it, then it could be presumed orphaned. Maybe they could step back in and ask the library or whoever to stop using it at that point, but wouldn’t be able to sue for its use before that. Sound crazy?

    1. Perhaps we could grant copyright only for a fixed term and require that the creator put their name and the date of publication on their works, and then register them with some sort of authority. We could even require that they re-register them after some period of time, say 26 years, so that if they weren’t still interested in maintianing copyright the works would fall into the public domain so they’d be free for everybody to use. (/vicious sarcasm) Well we USED to do all that in the US before we allowed our copyright law to be Shanghied by big media and converted to the European copyright norms.

  9. @6: That is something that may or may not be quite unfortunate. While digital copies have the potential to drastically expand access to often difficult-to-find works, and to make it far easier to find relevant books and passages, many university librarians seem to see them as cost-cutting measures (digitize the books, throw away the originals) that actually end up reducing access for people who aren’t in academia or worse, in this case, not at a specific university. A member of the public can often check out physical books from a university library, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here for digital books.

    As they have no copyright over the books, however, it will be interesting to see how strongly they protect them from ‘undesirable’ copying. Sadly, I expect that they’ll write up contracts preventing users from copying any of them, or at least any significant portion of the collection. If not, I’d very much support any students who would like to copy the collection so that others can make it available to the public.

  10. Looking at the HathiTrust site for a random ‘full-view’ book (in the public domain) from their catalog, they do indeed have a statement asserting that the “images are provided for educational, scholarly, non-commercial purposes” with a request that they “not be re-hosted, redistributed or used commercially.” While these restrictions are there from Google, it is still unfortunate; it does seem, however, that their works not digitized by Google do not have similar restrictions.

    Still, users from outside the UM community can only view single pages and download single-page PDFs.

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