Social media feeds have been full links to alarmist stories about a recent change to UK copyright law that allows for the licensing of orphan works.
Photographers have been particularly concerned after one site (which I won't dignify with a link) used the headline "ALL your pics belong to everyone now". So much alarm has been created that the UK's intellectual property office felt moved to publish a PDF debunking some of the myths that have arisen. I was waiting until the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 was published on the government's legislation website before making my own comment.
The problem of orphan works is well known. Copyright lasts for a long time. In the UK it will usually be for 70 years after the death of the author. Discovering the author of a work to discover whether it is, or is not, protected by copyright can be difficult, let alone discovering the present owner of that copyright in order to ask them for a licence. The effect of that is that many works are either not used, or used only by organisations that care little about copyright on the ask forgiveness not permission principle.
There are radical solutions to this problem, for example we could require that copyright owners register their copyrights in order to enforce them, as the United States did until relatively recently. Or we could adopt William Patry's more modest proposal where no registration would be required for an initial, but relatively short, copyright term. To extend the life of a work's copyright, the copyright owner would be required to register. Such a system would make it very easy to discover who was the owner of a work older than the short initial period of copyright, but of course there would be administrative costs associated with it. Legislators have been more timid in their response.
One solution that has already been enacted is the European the orphan works directive (2012/28/EU), although the UK does not have to transpose it into UK law until 29 October 2014.
The orphan works directive is an exceptionally modest provision. Its beneficiaries are public libraries, education establishments, museums and archives. Any institution wishing to use an orphan work must first carry out a "diligent search" in good faith from "appropriate sources". The directive itself lists some "appropriate sources" which would have to be searched, but member states may add to the list, which varies depending on the type of work involved.
Records have to be kept by the institutions of their diligent searches which must be sent to their national government which in turn must make the results available on a publicly searchable website (good to see that governments are beginning to understand open data). This ought to make it easy for copyright owners to discover whether one of their works has been designated as an "orphan" and, having found out, make sure that oprhan status is rescinded.
Institutions may only use the works to achieve their "public-interest missions" and may only charge in order to recover costs of copying or making available to the public. They may not exploit the works commercially.
The orphan works directive tries to maintain the broad integrity of copyright by delegating the task of carrying out a diligent search and managing the orphan works system to trusted public institutions. By contrast Canada has been using an orphan works law which relies on a central authority, theCopyright Board of Canada.
Section 77 of the Canadian Copyright Act 1985, entitled "owners who cannot be located", requires anyone seeking a licence for what we call orphan works to satisfy the Copyright Board that they have made "reasonable efforts to locate the owner". The Board may then issue a non-eclusive licence on any terms it chooses to specify. According to their brochure they will usually require the payment of a licence fee, which will be paid to a collecting society. If the owner of the copyright appears within 5 years of they expiry of the licence, they may claim the licence fee. Where the fee was paid to a collecting society, the society will pay the owner.
The Board do not issue very many licences - roughly 22 a year since 1990. Not all applications for a licence are accepted. Whether "it works" in Canada I do not know, but copyright has clearly not come to an end there.
So where does that leave us? Section 77 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 introduces a new section 116A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 concerned with orphan works. Section 116A is a mere skeleton. It allows the government to make regulations that would allow someone (an authorised person) or alternatively some people to be chosen by someone designated for the purpose, to grant licences to orphan works. The content and circumstances of the licences we do not know. All we do know is:
Now in theory this means we could end up with a Wild West system where there was little real control over licensing of orphan works. The regulations could be very lax on what counted as a "diligent search" and very generous about the licensing terms. That is always a risk with open-ended legislative provisions (and why they should not be used by Parliament).
The reality, according to the intellectual property office, is that we will end up with something similar to the Canadian system. Licences will not be free. Copyright owners will be able to claim fees that have been paid. There will almost certainly be a fairly tight and prescriptive description of what counts as a "diligent search". It will not be enough simply to look at the metadata on a photograph, shrug one's shoulders, and go ahead.
In parallel to section 116A is a new 116B which will allow collecting societies in sectors where they now organise (eg books and music) to be given permission to license works that they do not have any existing right to license - eg where they do not own the rights and the author has not given the society permission to license them. This is not an orphan work provision. It applies even though the society knows full well who the author of a work might be. I mention it because it has been mixed into some of the reports about the orphan works provisions.
I have my doubts about extended collective licensing, but it will at least be an "opt out" system. No-one has to participate if they do not want to. In a sector where most licensing is direct (author to user) such as photography, there may never be such a system as the intellectual property office has indicated.
The intellectual property office tell me that there will be extensive consultation on the detail of any regulations. Anyone having an interest in these provisions should make sure they engage with the consultation or join with others to represent them collectively. I am sure the open rights group will be making representations.