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Agreement reached on new EU copyright laws on 'orphan' works

Public libraries and museums will not need to wait for the term of copyright protection on 'orphan' works to expire before they can digitally archive the material under an agreement on new EU laws.07 Jun 2012

EU Internal Markets Commissioner Michel Barnier has announced that the European Commission, European Parliament and Council of Ministers have reached agreement on a new EU Directive on orphan works.

The Directive has still to be "formally approved" by the Parliament and Council but this is due to happen in the "coming months", a statement issued by Barnier said.

Orphan works are copyrighted material, such as books, films and music, which have no identified owner.

"Public libraries and museums will be able to digitise, preserve and put on-line the cultural treasures they have in their collections," Barnier said. "European citizens will have the opportunity to access our common cultural heritage on-line, wherever they are." 

"At the same time, creators' rights are respected. This is my vision of the digital single market," Barnier added.

At the moment many orphan works lie in storage in libraries and other institutions and because of copyright law cannot be digitised or used without permission until the term of copyright expires.

In May last year the European Commission outlined plans for a new EU Directive governing how orphan works should be archived by public organisations across Europe. Under the plans orphan works would be digitised and made available online in all EU countries, regardless where the work originates from. 

The Commission said that EU countries should give out permits to organisations to allow them to digitise orphan works. Permits should only be granted to "publicly accessible libraries, educational establishments or museums as well as by archives, film heritage institutions and public service broadcasting organisations," the Commission's proposed Directive said.

However, the proposals also contained requirements on the designated bodies to conduct a "diligent search" for the owner of the works' copyright before they digitise the material and publish the search results for others to see. A search for the unknown owner of copyright works would be the responsibility of designated organisations in the country where the material was first published or broadcast, the Commission had said.

The proposals would also require that organisations that utilise orphan works record their use on a central database for others across Europe to see. Individuals who come forward to claim ownership of orphan works would also be entitled to claim compensation for use of their works, the Commission said.

Late last year the Commission said that it wanted EU member states to conduct a consultation on the implementation of new laws on 'orphan works' prior to the laws being adopted "in order to facilitate a rapid implementation". 

In December the UK Government launched a consultation on potential reforms to the copyright regime which included asking for views on the creation of an 'orphan works' scheme. The scheme would establish licensing and clearance procedures for copyright material which currently cannot be used because its creator or owner is unknown and would include "necessary safeguards" for both the owners and rights holders of orphan works, the Government said.

The Intellectual Property Office at the time said the Government would make legislative proposals around copyright reform in the spring this year. However, a separate feasibility study into whether a new digital copyright exchange will resolve current issues with copyright licensing models in the UK has still to be reported on. Former Ofcom chairman Richard Hooper, who has been charged with overseeing the study, is due to make recommendations to Parliament before the Parliament's summer recess.

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Expertise in Copyright

Copyright is an extremely valuable, often unrecognised or misunderstood right which protects a whole range of original materials including written materials, software, artistic materials, music and dramatic works. It arises automatically without the need for registration in most countries and protects these materials from unauthorised copying. It is essential in business to identify such rights, ensure they are owned by the correct entity, properly protected, enforced and exploited.

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