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Glazer's Camera

Orphan Works Bill Divides Photographers


The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have each introduced versions of an "orphan works" bill this April. Orphan works are created compositions that are copyrighted but for which it is difficult to locate the copyright owner or the owner is unknown.

The Copyright Office has attempted to make orphan works public domain for many artists and institutions. In 2006, a similar bill was introduced but was highly unpopular with many groups and was later withdrawn.

Both new proposals would require the creation of an extensive public database of current works before either bill could become law, a feature lacking in the 2006 bill that would better protect artists. The creation of the database would require the Copyright Office to contract with two private companies to run the database. It would include names and locations of copyright holders, titles and descriptions of works, and security features enabled to protect the copyrighted works.

Photography groups are split over the creation of an orphan works bill. The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), Professional Photographers of America and stock agencies support legislation. However, ASMP is only backing the House version, H.R. 5889, which requires users of orphan works to submit notification to the Copyright Office. The Senate bill, S. 2913, does not contains such a requirement, ASMP says, which would allow too many copyrighted works to be considered orphaned and thus would encourage widespread infringement.

The Illustrators Partnership of America actively opposes both bills, claiming that either one would force artists to register their work for fear of them becoming orphaned and would therefore decrease artists' rights. The Advertising Photographers of America and the National Press Photographers Association have joined the Illustrators Partnership in this position.

If passed, S. 2913 would take effect January 2011, while H.R. 5889 would become law in 2013. Congress is expected to vote on the legislation before its fall recess.