Copyright and Orphan Works

20 August 2013

The digital revolution has been a mixed blessing for photographers. On the one hand we can take hundreds of photographs in almost complete darkness, store them on tiny plastic cards and use them immediately. On the other hand the copying of an image is now no more difficult and time consuming than dragging a computer pointer across the screen and letting go of a button.

As usual, the law is struggling to keep up, and when it does it seems to be finding it difficult to keep a balanced perspective as the driving forces are not necessarily the creators of copyrights but more the potential users of them.

There are many changes afoot, but the one piece of proposed copyright legislation that is causing serious angst for photographers is what are called 'orphan works'. These are photographs that you possess but do not know anything about: notably who owns the rights. There is pressure from organisations with libraries of images which they wish to exploit, such as the British Library and the BBC and it will be possible to licence the use of an orphan once ownership has been diligently researched and found to be truly untraceable.

Orphaning of photographs on the internet is most worrying. Images get posted, tweeted and reposted and somewhere along the way any ownership information that might have been there often gets lost. Are these images, more waifs and strays than orphans, going to be fair game for unscrupulous publishers?

I doubt whether the use of orphan works is the end of photographic copyright, as some have suggested, but I do think that the current plan for orphan works seems to be ignoring the legitimate concerns of the photographic community.

[See also: Orphan Works, page 298 RPS Journal June 2013]

Andy Finney is an RPS member and also writes for