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Screenshot of Copyright Board of Canada

Orphan Works in Canada: Attempting Accountability

The alarms sounded this summer about orphan works legislation, while unfounded (no such legislation is under consideration at this time), underscored the emotional resonance of the issue. Congress has long wanted to address the issue of orphan works, creative works whose author and copyright status are unknown. For a number of years, there has been a tremendous push by varied professions and industries – academics, museums, publishers, documentary filmmakers, the entertainment industry, and others – to pass legislation which would permit the use of orphan works without the fear of copyright infringement lawsuits. Creators are justifiably concerned that any legislation would weaken their copyright protection, or would enable businesses to use orphan works as a way of avoiding the cost of commissioning or licensing works.

Canada, however, does have in place a system that permits the use of orphan works, while attempting to protect the interests of creators. The Copyright Board of Canada has published a brochure outlining their system. A businesses or individual who desires to use an orphan work must first conduct a diligent search for the copyright holder, by contacting collective societies, doing Internet searches, and contacting publishers, libraries, museums, and educational institutions and ministries. Once a reasonable search has been conducted, the petitioner must fill out an application in writing which includes both a detailed description of the search for the copyright owner, as well as the intended use of the work.

Once the application is reviewed, and if the Board is satisfied that a diligent search was conducted for the copyright holder, it can issue a license and set a royalty fee for the usage. The license terms set the authorized use, such as number of copies, distribution, and expiration date. The royalty fee is not retained by the Board, but is distributed to whichever copyright collective society would represent the copyright holder. The collective societies may use the royalties in any way they see fit to benefit their members. However, if the copyright holder surfaces within five years after the expiration of the license, he or she is reimbursed the fee by the collective society.

To assist authors in monitoring what orphan works licenses have been granted, the Board’s website lists chronologically the licenses which have been issued going back to 1990. The site also lists the applications that have been denied, and gives the reason why. The system is somewhat limited, in that the license issued by the Board is only valid in Canada. However, the system enables those wishing to use orphan works for legitimate purposes to do so, while reducing any financial incentive to bypass illustrators and passing on to creators due compensation.



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