In Berne Convention, Copyright, Copyright Act, H.R. 5889, Orphan Rights, Orphan Works, S. 2913, TRIPS

We’ve seen “Six Misconceptions About Orphan Works” circulating on the Internet. It’s a well-reasoned piece, but has one problem. The author cites current copyright law to “debunk” concerns about an amendment that would change the law she cites.

How would the proposed amendment change the law? We’ll get to that and other questions in a minute. But first, let’s answer the broader charge that news of an Orphan Works bill is just “an internet myth.”

Q: There is no Orphan Works bill before Congress – one was introduced in 2006, but it was never voted on.
A: Correct. The last bill died in Congress because of intense opposition from illustrators, photographers, fine artists, and textile designers. The Illustrators’ Partnership testified against it in both the House and Senate.

Q: So if the bill is dead, why warn everybody about it now?
A: Because a new bill is due out momentarily. According to Andrew Noyes of the National Journal:

“Legislation aimed at reworking a portion of U.S. copyright law dealing with ‘orphan works’… will likely be a priority for the panel headed by House Judiciary Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property Subcommittee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., in the spring…

“American Library Association copyright specialist Carrie Russell said her members are ‘excited about having orphan works legislation’ move this session,’” adding: “the House effort is ‘so close to being a done deal that we’re on the edge of our seats.’” –Intellectual Property -Progress Seen on Developing ‘Orphan Works’ Legislation, by Andrew Noyes © National Journal Group, Inc. 02-21-2008

Q: But if there isn’t a new bill yet, how can we know what’s going to be in it?
A: Our information indicates the new bill will be basically the same as the old one. According to the Copyright Clearance Center:

“Subcommittee chairman Howard Berman made it quite clear that he intends to introduce new orphan works legislation shortly… It is likely the new bill will look very similar to The Orphan Works Act of 2006.”

Q: But if it’s due out shortly, why not wait until it’s been introduced before we oppose it?
A: To quote from the Copyright Clearance Center:

“Since this is an election year, and re-election campaigns will be in full swing by late summer, new orphan works legislation will probably be fast-tracked to reach the floor of the House by mid-May”.

Since that would give us only a month to notify artists, we decided to start now.

Q: Do we have any direct corroboration for these press reports?
A: Since the last bill died, we’ve met with:

– Chairman Berman
– Attorneys from the Copyright Office
– Representatives of the House and Senate Subcommittees
– A lobbyist for Getty and Corbis. (Getty and Corbis oppose the bill, but are negotiating for favorable concessions.)

Q: Where did we get the idea that the Copyright Office wants to impose for-profit registries?
A: That proposal has been there from the beginning. Two examples (with emphasis added), the first from page 106 of the Copyright Office’s 2006 Orphan Works Report:

“[W]e believe that registries are critically important, if not indispensable, to addressing the orphan works problem…It is our view that such registries are better developed in the private sector…”

And on January 29 2007, twenty visual arts groups met in Washington D.C. with attorneys from the Copyright Office. The attorneys stated that the Copyright Office would not create these “indispensable” registries because it would be “too expensive.” So I asked the Associate Register for Policy & International Affairs:

Holland: If a user can’t find a registered work at the Copyright Office, hasn’t the Copyright Office facilitated the creation of an orphaned work?
Carson: Copyright owners will have to register their images with private registries.
Holland: But what if I exercise my exclusive right of copyright and choose not to register?
Carson: If you want to go ahead and create an orphan work, be my guest!
– From my notes of the meeting

This exchange suggests that if Copyright Office proposals become law:

– Unregistered work will be considered a potential orphan from the moment you create it.
– In the U.S., copyright will no longer be the exclusive right of the copyright holder.

Q: What does it mean to say your copyright is an “exclusive right”?
A: Under existing law, “[a] copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or license his work…Under current law, works are covered whether or not a copyright notice is attached and whether or not the work is registered (emphasis added).”

Q: Why does this exclusive right matter?
A: Two big reasons:

– Creative control and ownership: No one can use or change your work without your permission.
– Value: In the marketplace the ability to sell exclusive rights to a client triples the value of your work.

Q: So how would the Orphan Works proposals endanger that right?
A: It would allow anyone who can’t find you (or who removes your name from your work and says he can’t) to infringe your work. Since infringements can occur anytime, anywhere in the world, they could be countless but you might never find them.

Q: So?
A: So:

– Under this bill, you would never again be able to assure a client that your work hasn’t been – or won’t be – infringed. Therefore
– You would never again be able to guarantee a client an exclusive right to license your work. This means
– Your entire inventory of work would be devalued by at least 2/3 from the moment this bill is signed into law.

Q: But the “orphan works problem” isn’t just something dreamed up by evil corporations to steal your vacation photographs. It’s an actual problem faced by academics, librarians, and others.
A: In drafting the 1976 Copyright Act, Congress weighed the issue of older works whose owners can’t be located. They concluded that the problem it created for users was outweighed by the benefits of harmonizing U.S. copyright law with international copyright law.

“A point that has concerned some educational groups arose from the possibility that, since a large majority (now about 85 percent) of all copyrighted works are not renewed, a life-plus-50 year term would tie up a substantial body of material that is probably of no commercial interest but that would be more readily available for scholarly use if free of copyright restrictions…

“[I]t is important to realize that the [1976] bill would not restrain scholars from using any work as source material or from making ‘fair use’ of it; the restrictions would extend only to the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of copies of the work, its public performance, or some other use that would actually infringe the copyright owner’s exclusive rights (emphasis added).” SOURCE: H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476, at 136 (1976) – Quoted on pages 15 –16 and 41 – 44 of the 2006 Orphan Works Report

Q: But the backers of the Orphan Works bill say it would merely amend the law to solve the problem of old work whose owners can’t be found.
A: It would solve the problem alright! But it would do so by making a potential orphan of any work by any artist, living or dead. This would be like trying to solve the crime problem by making everything legal.

Q: How would it orphan “any work by any artist, living or dead”?
A: As we testified before the Senate subcommittee in 2006: “The inability to distinguish between abandoned copyrights and those whose owners are simply hard to find is the Catch 22 of the Orphan Works project.

“Put simply, if a picture is unmarked, it’s impossible to source or date it. Therefore this amendment would orphan millions of valuable copyrights that cannot otherwise be distinguished from true orphaned works – and that would open the door to cultural theft on an unprecedented scale.”

Q: But the Copyright Office says the infringer would first have to make a “reasonably diligent search” to find the copyright holder.
A: Yes, but last time, this opened a Pandora’s Box of problems. No one was able to draft a foolproof definition of a “reasonably diligent search” (remember that the infringer would have a serious financial incentive not to find you). So the Copyright Office proposed registries.

Q: Why registries?
A: Because a search of registries would allow the infringer to legally claim he had made a “reasonably diligent search.”

Q: And the problem with that is?
A: You can’t find a picture in a registry if it’s not there. Any picture – published or unpublished, professional or personal – that hasn’t been registered could therefore be orphaned by a successful orphan works defense – even if the artist was alive and otherwise managing his copyrights.

Q: But if you do become aware of an infringement, you can always claim a “reasonable fee” from the user.
A: Another Pandora’s Box because:

– Infringements can occur anytime anywhere in the world; therefore
– You would have to search every publication, every website, everywhere – on a regular basis – to see if anything you’ve ever done has been infringed.
– This would be an impossible task – but
– Even if you did find an infringement, you’d still have to
– Locate the infringer and get him to respond; and
– While the infringer would only have to make a “reasonably diligent search” to find you,
-You would have to make an absolutely successful search to find him.
– Then, if you were able to track him down and get him to respond, you’d have to
– Settle for whatever he was willing or able to pay you; or
– Take him to Federal Court; but remember
– If the court accepts the infringer’s claim that he made a reasonably diligent effort to find you,
– You’d get no more than what he was willing or able to pay you in the first place; but
-You’d be out-of-pocket for legal expenses; and
– There’d be no limit to the amount of damages and legal fees the infringer could get from you in a countersuit.

Q: But what if you do sue an infringer and win? Then can’t the court award you full costs, including a reasonable attorney’s fee?
A: In theory, yes. But here’s how a full-time litigator, advising us in 2006, said it would happen in real life:

“Under current law, infringement cases follow two scenarios:

“Scenario One: If a copyright owner has registered his copyright, he can get statutory damages and attorneys fees. As a result, it is relatively easy to find a contingency fee lawyer to take these cases. (That’s because the copyright owner doesn’t have to pay the lawyer; the infringer does). In addition, the copyright owner usually finds that he gets more in settlement than he pays in legal fees, if he decides to hire an hourly-rate lawyer.

“Scenario Two: If a copyright owner has NOT registered his copyright, he can only get actual damages. In these cases, it is usually impossible to find a contingency fee lawyer [because in these cases, the copyright owner will have to pay – and may not be able to]. Moreover, it is often not wise for the copyright owner to litigate these cases anyway, because the settlement value is so small.

“Under the orphan works legislation, ALL infringement scenarios are, as a practical matter, Scenario Two.”

Q: But the Copyright Office says that infringers who act in good faith need “certainty” that they won’t be penalized for using an “orphaned” work:

“Most [commenters to the Orphan Works Study] agreed that statutory damages and attorneys fees should not be available [to copyright owners] because those remedies create the most uncertainty in the minds of users (emphasis added).” – Page 7/Orphan Works Report

A: Maybe so, but under this bill

-You would never have certainty because you’d never know if, when or where your work has been infringed.
– Yet the infringer would be guaranteed the kind of certainty the law would deny you.

Q: The Copyright Office says that user certainty is “essential to encouraging the use of the [orphaned] work.” -Page 7/Orphan Works Report
A: The issue of certainty for the user/infringer is the lynchpin of the whole Orphan Works issue, so let’s take it step-by-step:

1. Congress can’t pass a law to make you register your work or put copyright symbols on it because these formalities would violate the obligations and commitments of the United States under the international Berne Copyright Convention:

Berne/Article 5(2) “The enjoyment and the exercise of these rights shall not be subject to any formality (emphasis added).”

2. So because Congress can’t impose formalities on you, the Copyright Office crafted a recommendation that would expose your work to infringement if you didn’t impose formalities on yourself.

3. They say this “limitation on remedies” is necessary to guarantee “certainty” to the good faith infringer of your work.

4. But uncertainty is the only mechanism the law gives you to protect your work from thieves.

5. There is no Copyright Bureau of Investigation; no Copyright Police Force.

6. You are responsible for policing your own copyrights – and penalties for infringement are the only weapon the law gives you.

7. Fact: most creative work is never registered with the Copyright Office and most infringers know it. So

8. If an infringer wants to rip off your work, he can guess that a.) you may never find out about it; and b.) it probably wasn’t registered anyway.

9. He may guess correctly but – he can’t be sure – and this uncertainty is your key safeguard against unjust infringement, because

10. If an bad actor guesses wrong, he’ll be liable under current law for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringement, plus attorneys fees.

11. This is a powerful incentive for a thief not to risk stealing our work.

12. So it turns out that in the real world, uncertainty in the mind of a bad actor is the only weapon you have to protect your copyright. Remove that uncertainty and you remove the only realistic safeguard the law provides.

Let’s say that again: Without uncertainty, thieves can reasonably gamble that their thefts may never be detected, the work they steal won’t be registered, the owners of the stolen property will never find them and – if once in a while they do get caught – they can simply say the property had no name on it when they found it and dare you to sue them. From that point on, the risk will be all yours.

The Dog that Didn’t Bark In 2006, visual artists banded together and flooded Congressional offices with faxes protesting the harm the Orphan Works Act would do to professional artists.

Lost in the swamp of debate over “reasonable searches” and “reasonable fees,” no one stopped to think that the bill had been written so broadly that the inclusion of unpublished work would expose even personal and private work – such as sketches, diaries, family photos, home videos, etc. to infringement. This issue was the dog that didn’t bark. The January 29 2007 exchange with the attorney from the Copyright Office finally woke the dog:

Carson: Copyright owners will have to register their images with private registries.
Holland: But what if I exercise my exclusive right of copyright and choose not to register?
Carson: If you want to go ahead and create an orphan work, be my guest!

This radical expansion of the public domain makes this legislation much more than an issue of copyright infringement. Its unintended consequences would amount to a violation of private property and potentially, of privacy itself.

In a 2005 paper submitted to the Copyright Office, legal scholars Jane Ginsburg and Paul Goldstein warned that Orphan Works legislation must precisely define the scope of its mandate or fail to uphold our country’s commitment to international law and copyright-related treaties:

“[T]he diversity of [orphan works] responses highlights the fundamental importance of precisely defining the category of ‘orphan’ works. The broader the category, or the lower the bar to making the requisite showing of due diligence, the greater the risk of inconsistency with our international obligations to uphold authors’ exclusive rights under copyright. Compliance with Berne/TRIPs is required by more than punctilio; these rules embody an international consensus of national norms that in turn rest on long experience with balancing the rights of authors and their various beneficiaries, and the public. Thus, in urging compliance with these technical-appearing rules, we are also urging compliance with longstanding practices that have passed the test of time (emphasis added).” -Item 1/page 1 Orphan Works Reply Comments

It may sound absurd to argue that the unintended consequences of this legislation will raise privacy issues. But the absurdity arises from the Copyright Office’s inversion of basic copyright law. On page 14 of the Orphan Works Report, the authors write:

“If our recommendation resolves users’ concerns in a satisfactory way, it will likely be a comprehensive solution to the orphan works situation (emphasis added).”

Yet any law that permits users to commercialize the private property of others cannot be “comprehensive” if it “prejudices the legitimate interests of the copyright holders.” See Article 13/The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)

This includes unpublished work and personal expressions as well as works intended for commercial use. Authors’ rights are exclusive. Public interest cannot compel anyone – artist or private citizen – to publish his or her work. So by what right of eminent domain can Congress assert a sweeping right to let others publish it for them?

The Copyright Office has stated that they’ll regard their recommendation as “satisfactory” if it makes millions of copyrights, no matter how valuable, available to users, no matter how worthy, under a system that would introduce permanent uncertainty into the markets of professional creators and into the lives of ordinary citizens. By placing the wants of users over the rights of rightsholders, the Copyright Office would invert the simple logic of copyright law, which in 2006, one artist expressed very clearly this way:

“If you find a creative work, you may not know who created it, but you know you didn’t.”

Despite 127 pages of the Orphan Works Report, you need only common sense to tell you this: The primary goal of copyright law is not to make creators’ work available to others. If it were, there’d be no need for copyright law at all: everything would be free for anyone to use. Copyright law exists primarily to protect the property rights of creators and secondarily, to extend the benefits of the creator’s work to the public. It does this by defining specific, limited exceptions to the creator’s exclusive license. In doing so, the law promotes the useful arts and provides certainty to users and creators alike. Invert the law and you invert the only way it can benefit society.

– Brad Holland © 2008 with additional research by Cynthia Turner, for the Illustrators’ Partnership

The author has given his permission to post or forward this article in its entirety to any interested party.

Brad Holland is a self-taught artist and writer whose work has appeared in Time, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, the New York Times and other publications. He is a member of the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. His satire on the art business, “Express Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think” was first published in The Atlantic Monthly
“First Things About Secondary Rights” appeared in The Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts, published by the Columbia University School of Law

Cynthia Turner is a certified medical illustrator and a Fellow of the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI). She is a founding member and Board member of the Illustrators’ Partnership of America, and a member of the Society of Illustrators. She creates original illustrations for medical publishers, pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology firms and their agencies.

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