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The Orphan Works Project: Increasing Access to Academic Resources


A recent press release from Cornell University announced the expansion of a new initiative, the Orphan Works Project, that makes additional resources available to students, instructors, and researchers. According to the release, orphan works are "out of print books that are still subject to copyright but whose copyright holders cannot be identified or located." These items have been in a sort of copyright limbo, and difficult to access, until now.

Who is involved and how does it work?

The academic libraries of eight institutions, including the University of Wisconsin, University of Florida, University of California, Cornell, Duke, Emory, and Johns Hopkins, are involved, led by the University of Michigan. They are working with the contents of the existing HathiTrust digital library, that holds more than 9 million items, and which is funding the project. It is estimated that as many as half of the texts could be classified as orphan works. While they already have been scanned and archived, they may not be available due to copyright concerns. HathiTrust is a consortium of more than 50 member institutions working to preserve, organize, and share "the record of human knowledge." This group has digitized and archived over 2.5 million volumes that are currently available to the public.

The initial scope of the project is to investigate the copyright status of items published between 1923 and 1963. Each item in the collection will be reviewed and researched to see if its copyright is intact or if it is an orphan and eligible for more open access through this project. Ultimately, the works identified will be able to anyone with access to these academic libraries. This meets the requirements of Fair Use guidelines through limited reproduction for educational purposes. For most of the schools involved in the Orphan Works Project, the new resources will only be available to members of those universities, accessed online via school ID. However, some of the university libraries are open to the public and those facilities will be able to allow to their public visitors.

What does this mean for online students and instructors?

There are a number of benefits to having these works available through academic institutions. Academic libraries and university copyright offices benefit from a thorough review and documenting of their collections, and copyright holders who are located will make decisions over how their works are shared. Students and instructors will also realize advantages related to this project as they proceed with their studies and research:

  • Online access: Additional texts will be available online through the partner universities' access points, and searchable through their database and collection websites.
  • Full-text: In many cases only limited sections of these already digital texts have been available due to copyright restrictions. Under the terms of this project, full-text versions of the items will be made available.
  • Reduced costs: Gaining access to a rare book or other tightly controlled text resource can be costly in terms of traveling to a location that has the item available or paying for a subscription or for one-time access. Having access to additional items through library systems can reduce the cost of conducting research for students and faculty.
  • Preservation: Since the orphan texts are out of print, printed copies housed by the physical libraries can be rare and kept in archives only accessible to qualified researchers. Digital copies of these volumes will all not only increase access to the works themselves, but also allow libraries to pull the printed copies off the shelves to ensure preservation for long-term use by future scholars.
  • Digital scholarship: Initiatives like the Orphan Works Project help to advance the openness of digital scholarship, making academic research available to larger audiences, and going against the tradition of more restricted, and often expensive, access to scholarly work.

It is anticipated that the initial year of this program will see more than 10,000 orphan works opened for access through these universities. Hopefully more universities will join the effort, loaning manpower to the review effort and potentially additional materials to the project.

More about Fair Use Guidelines

Fair Use is part of the U.S. Copyright Code and allows for legal use of copyrighted materials without getting the owner's permission, but only under certain circumstances. Fair Use is based on four factors: purpose of use (i.e. education, research), nature of the work (i.e. fiction or non-fiction, type of publication), amount of the work used (e.g. a few paragraphs or entire volume), and effect of the use (i.e. existence of alternate formats, commercial value of the work). Fair Use guidelines can be nebulous and challenging to apply. Explore the following for more information:

  • Fair Use Evaluator, is a user-friendly online tool to help you evaluate whether or not your planned use of copyrighted material aligns with fair use guidelines.
  • The Essential Copyright website from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte also includes detailed guidance on the use of materials in academic courses, including online delivery.
  • The Association of Research Libraries has posted Know Your Copy Rights materials that are designed for librarians, but include a useful "What You Can Do" chart [PDF] that all of us can use to guide our decisions about using materials in traditional and online classrooms.

Keep in mind that fair use of copyrighted material still requires proper citation of the author. Fair use allows use without permission, but not without attribution of the creator of the work. And for instructors, copyright rules are also in effect for items you include in course readers or other reading compilations you create for your classes.

Work with your university's librarians for more information and guidance with your courses and course assignments. These professionals will be able to assist you with a range of copyright and fair use questions, as well as provide guidance on your school's internal policies and procedures.

Other copyright news:

This week JSTOR, an academic journal archiving service, announced free access to its "Early Journal Content." This material was originally published prior to 1923 in the United States and 1870 in other locations and is now out of copyright and considered to be in the public domain (i.e. not restricted by copyright and available for use by anyone without permission). While JSTOR does charge for access to other public domain items, this announcement is a move toward increased access to academic work that has been called for by many scholars seeking a broader sharing of academic knowledge, bringing it out from behind expensive subscriptions and protective walls.

For more about copyright, fair use, public domain, and orphan works, review the information provided by the U.S. Copyright Office. Helpful tutorials and examples, such as those provided in the University of Texas Libraries' Copyright Crash Course, are also available online.

September 8th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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