Yesterday bills were introduced in the House (PDF) and the Senate (PDF) addressing the orphan works copyright issue about which I’ve written many times before. Alex Curtis has a great write-up of the bills over at the Public Knowledge blog.
An orphan work is a work under copyright the owner of which cannot be located so that a potential re-user cannot ask for permission to use or license the work. If you can’t find the owner, even after an exhaustive search, and use a work anyway, you risk the possibility that the owner will later come forward, sue you, and claim statutory damages up to $150,000 per infringing use.
Both bills are largely based on the Copyright Office’s recommendations and not the unworkable Lessig proposal that had been previously introduced as the Public Domain Enhancement Act by Rep. Zoe Lofgren. The bills limit the remedies available to a copyright owner if an infringing party can show that they diligently searched for the owner before they used the work. (What constitutes a diligent search is specifically defined, which should address the concerns about the Smith bill expressed by visual and stock artists.)
Rather than statutory damages, the owner would simply be owed the reasonable compensation for the infringing use—-that is, what the infringer would have paid for the use if they had been able to negotiate. I think this is a fine solution because it gives all copyright holders an incentive to keep their registrations current and their works marked to the best of their abilities (i.e. what old-time formalities used to accomplish). I’m also happy to see that injunction is also limited.
Like the Smith bill, both of these new bills direct the Copyright Office to complete a study and produce a report on copyright small claims. There are many instances of copyright infringement that are too small to be litigated in federal district court—-like a website that uses my copyrighted photo they got off flickr. Professional photographers and other visual artists face this all the time and there should be a way to address their concerns. One idea is to create a copyright small claims court and it’s something I’d love to research and contribute to a Copyright Office proceeding. So if Congress has been thinking about this for a few years, what’s stopping the Copyright Office from taking on the project sua sponte?
Anyhow, stay tuned as these bills wind their way through committee and the IP maximalists are engaged.