Don’t want your work orphaned? Time to consider a visual registry
Don’t want your work orphaned? Time to consider a visual registry
Don’t want your work orphaned? Time to consider a visual registry

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    Furniture makers are weighing in against orphan works legislation. An article published last week on the Furniture Today web site puts the worst possible spin on the legislation: “The Orphan Works Act promises to strip us of our archival property rights and permit offshore vendors to appropriate our work.” Much like their brethren in illustration, textiles and photography, the opposition to orphan works comes back to the same problem: their copyright information is too easily separated from their work.

    Unfortunately, the article mischaracterizes what the orphan works legislation will allow:

    'If you come across a piece of art – a textile pattern or anything else, and there's no identification on it, if you do a reasonable search and can't find the author, you are free to use it with impunity.'

    These groups would have a legitimate fear of a widespread uncompensated loss of their copyrighted work if the bill allowed orphan works users to quickly give up a search and never pay for use. But that's not what the bill does. Instead, an orphan work user must complete a reasonably diligent search, and pay reasonable compensation if the owner comes forward. The bill specifies that a reasonably diligent search is not completed just by saying a work has no identifying information, but orphan work users will have to follow search guidelines from the Copyright Office.

    If these groups are serious about having copyright owners found and compensated, then they should all agree on the need for a solution that would prevent works from becoming orphaned in the first place. The solution is a visual registry that is searchable with visual (as opposed to textual) information.

    The Library of Congress has over 12 million photographs in its collection. If you have one photograph without any identifying information and need to find the copyright owner–if one exists–how do you search 12 million photographs? And don't forget, because copyright law has no registration requirements, the photo you are looking for may not be one of those 12 million. Searching the Copyright Office's records will be of little help because records are only searchable by author, title and registration number.

    In the Copyright Office's Strategic Plan 2004-2008 the office outlines its goals, including making all 31 million records searchable in a single online database. Unfortunately, digitizing records will do little to solve the orphan works problem because there will still not be any way to search visually.

    As Alex pointed out last week, technology like Riya 2.0 can use an image to seek out similar images. More sites to check out are PicScout and Idee, they offer monitoring services for photographers. A photographer can upload photos to a database and the companies crawl the internet in search of matches so photographers can effectively police use of their images.

    A visual registry would allow everyone an easier way to find information about a visual work and facilitate finding the copyright holder. If companies can scour the entire web and successfully find even fragments of images, certainly the Library of Congress can establish a system to allow someone with a photo, illustration, textile pattern, etc. without any identifying information to search a visual registry and find a copyright owner. While it may not be realistic to enter all the millions of works that the Library currently has into a database, works that are being registered now and those that were registered most recently could benefit. A visual registry would substantially reduce and could potentially eliminate the number of visual works produced now that will become orphaned in the future.