University of Michigan’s MLibrary launches project to identify orphan works

The University of Michigan Library’s Copyright Office is launching the first serious effort to identify orphan works among the in-copyright holdings of the HathiTrust Digital Library, which is funding the project.

The vast majority of HathiTrust’s holdings are in-copyright (73%). An unknown percentage of these are so-called “orphans,” that is, in-copyright works whose owners cannot be identified or located. The lack of hard data on the number of orphans in the corpus is a significant impediment to the creation of a legal or policy-based framework that would allow scholars and researchers to access these works.

In a paper recently published by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), John Wilkin, Executive Director of HathiTrust, extrapolates from known statistics about the corpus, and speculates that the majority of works published since 1923 may in fact be orphans (“Bibliographic Indeterminacy and the Scale of Problems and Opportunities of ‘Rights’ in Digital Collection Building”; http://www.clir.org/pubs/ruminations/01wilkin/wilkin.html).

If that’s indeed the case, Wilkin says the implications for scholars and researchers, particularly those studying the 20th century, are enormous. The Copyright Office’s work to identify orphans will more precisely ascertain the scale of the problem Wilkin calls “bibliographic indeterminacy.” The project will also advance the efforts of an informal but growing group of libraries seeking to develop best practices for identifying orphans.

Melissa Levine, U-M Library’s lead copyright officer, says that the project will initially focus on 1923-1963 US works, specifically those determined to be in-copyright by the U-M’s Copyright Review Management System (CRMS). Among the more than 100,000 works thus far examined by the CRMS, which is funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), 45% have been determined to be in copyright.

This first phase of the orphan works identification project will develop procedures that can eventually be used by other HathiTrust partner institutions to expedite a task that will ultimately require the hand-checking of millions of volumes.

“We’re also going to create a mechanism to publicize bibliographic information about the orphans, to give their ‘parents’ the opportunity to claim them,” says Levine. She hopes that all extant copyright holders will come forward, and make informed decisions about the status of their work in the HathiTrust Digital Library. But it’s highly likely that the majority of orphans are just that—without any surviving person or entity to claim ownership.

The Copyright Office is part of MPublishing, the primary academic publishing enterprise of the University of Michigan. It offers copyright information and assistance to the U-M community, and participates in the global conversation about copyright and libraries.

–MLibrary News Release, May 16, 2011

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