U.S. copyright laws have historically become more and more restrictive with each new piece of legislation added. The result is stifling for genealogists: many genealogy books printed some years ago are still under copyright. As a result, valuable genealogy information is locked up in a few volumes that are not easily accessible to the millions of today's genealogists.
If someone wrote about your family in the 1950s, it is difficult or impossible for anyone to republish that data today online or on CD-ROM or even in a reprint on paper of the original book. Today's copyright laws specify that anyone who wishes to republish the information must obtain permission from the original author and/or his or her heirs. One problem is that the original authors often are deceased or difficult to locate. A second problem is that the heirs also may be impossible to locate. Valuable data that you and I seek is therefore not available.
These books are called "orphan works" -- items still locked up under copyright but where the owners are unknown or impossible to locate. Now the U.S. Copyright Office is trying to try to fix the problem. The office is soliciting reply comments until May 9, and has already collected and posted more than 700 initial comments from artists, academics and copyright owners. Those comments are available at http://www.copyright.gov/orphan/comments.
Jule Sigall, associate register for policy and international affairs for the copyright office, said the office will hold public hearings this summer and report its findings to the Senate Judiciary Committee by the end of the year. It's possible that Congress will address the orphan works issue with legislation.
"We're hoping to get a good factual record of what the problems are (and) what obstacles people are running into," Sigall said. "We also asked people to propose solutions. There seem to be a lot of good suggestions as to the type of mechanisms that could be used to solve the problems."
The copyright office wants to find a solution to satisfy those who want to build on orphan works without jeopardizing copy protection for owners.
Among the suggested solutions: establishing a database of current copyright owners who want their works protected (under current law, copyright owners are not required to register). Or, if a person can prove that she made a reasonable effort to find the owner and could not, she could use the work without fear of incurring costly penalties.
For most of the 20th century, copyright owners had to register and were granted protection for 28 years. They could opt to renew for another 28 years. Research cited by the copyright office shows that "less than half" were renewed under this system, leaving a flourishing public domain.
Now, copyright protection is given as soon as an item is in a fixed medium, and the term has been extended to life of the author, plus an additional 70 years. In 1992, works created before 1976 were automatically renewed, locking up many works just as they would have returned to the public. Plus, copyright owners are no longer are required to register.
According to comments submitted to the copyright office, one married couple couldn't get a wedding photograph repaired: The photography shop would not scan and reprint the photo because it was taken by a professional and the shop was afraid of violating copyright, even though the photographer was out of business. "For heaven's sake, this is a photograph of me and my wife, and I can't have it legally repaired!!! Wrong, wrong, wrong!" wrote William Haynes.
If you have an interest in this topic or if you would like to add your comments to the Copyright Office's investigation, look at http://www.copyright.gov/orphan.