Skip to Main Content

Copyright: Orphan Works

This guide provides information (not legal advice) to support NWC community decision-making in the use of copyright protected material in research, learning, and teaching.

Purpose of Guide and Disclaimer

This guide intends to refer NWC community users to accurate information. However, information received from the NWC Library or the NWC Copyright Librarian is neither legal advice/opinion nor legal counsel to the college or any members of the NWC community. Please contact the NWC Office of General Counsel or NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office for NWC-related legal advice and interpretation of the law, or personal counsel for personal legal advice. The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by NWC of sites or the information, products, or services contained therein, nor does NWC exercise editorial control over the information found at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this guide. U.S. copyright law is subject to change.

Orphan Works

Orphan works are works that are currently under copyright restrictions, but there is no conventional way to determine who currently holds the copyright. Please note that this may occur for many reasons, including the fact that a publisher is no longer in business or the copyright has passed to heirs who cannot be identified or located. If you cannot figure out who the owner is or if the work is still protected, this work is what is known as an orphan work. Unfortunately, U.S. law does not currently provide a remedy to individuals who wish to use orphan works.  

Orphan Work Resources:

Orphan Works and Mass Digitization Resources:

Orphan Works FAQ

If I can't locate the copyright owner of a work in order to ask permission and my use is not a fair use, can I simply use the work? 

Unfortunately, no. Dealing with orphan works can be difficult. There are times that you really need to get permission in order to use a work. If you cannot find the copyright owner to ask for permission, you need to rely on fair use (try altering your use to see if it is fair) or other exceptions to cover your use of the work. As of now there really is not a viable option for using orphan works when a specific exception does not apply. 

Congress has looked at developing a revision to the Copyright Act to deal with orphan works on a number of occasions, but has not yet passed any legislation. In 2012, the U.S. Copyright Office asked for comments from the public in order to further study the situation with orphan works. The Copyright Office is interested in how orphan works are being handled, what problems individuals and groups are having in dealing with them and what possible solutions there may be to the current orphan works situation. They released a report on mass digitization on 4 June 2015.

Experts are trying to find an agreeable solution to this legal conundrum. But, for the time being, you cannot use an orphan work as you desire based solely on the fact that it is an orphan work. You must evaluate your use to see if it fits within the parameters of one of the copyright statutory exemptions.