Somehow, my last post on orphan works has become the fourth hit on Google when you search for “Orphan Works Act”, as of 12:30 pm EST on April 16th. This is contrary to everything I know about search engine optimization, but that’s for another day.
The point is that, as a result of the post’s high Google ranking, I’ve had a number of comments from the previously-mentioned angry illustrators, upset about what they believe orphan works legislation will do to their livelihoods, and I feel compelled to respond.
There is a lot of misinformation about the potential Orphan Works Act being spread by the Illustrators’ Partnership, most of which is embodied in Mark Simon’s recent article, “Mind Your Business: You Will Lose All The Rights to Your Own Art” (the lies begin in the title). Illustrators all over are swallowing these falsehoods whole, and have taken it as their personal mission to make sure no Orphan Works Act ever passes. A few people out in the blogosphere have done a nice job of addressing the many specific inaccuracies floating around – Meredith Patterson and kynn both go into great and entertaining detail – and I won’t address them here.
Here, I’m concerned with the assertion, made by Mia in a comment on my last post, that orphan works legislation “is a ludicrous scheme dreamed up by greedy corporations”. It’s not. It’s just not. For the last few years, major champions of orphan works reform have included Lawrence Lessig, Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Eric Eldred, and The American Library Association. And don’t forget Register of Copyrights Marybeth Peters. These are individuals and organizations dedicated to serving the public good, to preserving the founding principles of copyright law, and to promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts. They’re policy wonks and librarians.
Why do wonks and librarians care about orphan works? Because we see every day the terrible impact that ever-extending copyright terms are having on the ability of ordinary people to find, share, and build upon the creative works of the past. Because we are watching unique materials in our collections – fragile books, classic film reels, historic photographs – crumble, with no clear legal protections for those of us would like not just to preserve those materials, but resurrect them and introduce them to a new generation of users and researchers.
I can brush off a lot of the lies about potential orphan works legislation as just poor fact-checking, but when someone lumps me in with “greedy corporations” – the very corporations that got us into this copyright mess – I take it personally. The public benefit that would come from a reasonable orphan works act is real, and it is great. Librarians see it. Policy wonks see it. Many scholars and creators see it, too. Orphan works legislation is not about authorizing giant corporations to steal from starving artists. It’s about opening up a vast store of resources that have been made inaccessible through a series of bad policy decisions and that, in the age of the Internet, have new potential to reach and affect millions of people who never could have found them before. Orphan works reform was dreamed up by wonks and librarians, because we care about the public, we care about progress, and we want to do good.