Copyright: Who owns this thing?

Copyright starts with two very basic puzzle pieces: A creator and a work. In most cases, sorting out copyright ownership is easy because the copyright in that one work belongs to that one creator. But sometimes, it can be much more complicated!

One of the most popular copyright issues that made it to mainstream media recently was the monkey selfie controversy


A wildlife photographer was taking photographs of macaque monkeys in Indonesia when a monkey took his camera from him and used it take hundreds of selfies. (A selfie, for those who are unaware, is a self-created photo portrait.)

The photographer claimed that he was the copyright owner of the photographs, but the U.S. Copyright Office denied his claim for copyright protection because materials produced by animals cannot be copyrighted. Generally, works must have a human creator to be protected by copyright.

Another recent copyright issue in mainstream media concerned Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie at the 2014 American Academy Awards.


The photograph was widely regarded as “Ellen’s selfie”—Ellen even acted as if it were hers when she gave permission to Associated Press to use the photo—but Ellen did not actually take the photo. The photo was taken by Bradley Cooper, another American celebrity. Generally speaking, copyright ownership belongs to the photographer in the case of a photograph. So, does Bradley Cooper own this photo? Copyright law here is actually really complicated, and arguments could be made that a number of people have claim to this photo. Sometimes, the law just is not that easy.

So, what does this have to do with libraries?

A lot of countries have copyright laws and practices that depend on the identity of the copyright holder. One that you may be familiar with is the treatment of “orphan works.” Orphan works are materials that are protected by copyright but have copyright owners that are unknown or unavailable.

Orphan works can take many different shapes. Sometimes the copyright owner is an author that has died, and it is now unclear who owns the rights. Sometimes the copyright owner is a corporation that no longer exists, and there is no documentation regarding succession. Sometimes a work clearly has a living, human author, but despite all efforts that author cannot be found.

Different countries have different laws about what can be done with orphan works. Some countries have government licensing solutions available for orphan works, such as Canada, Hungary, India, and Japan. Some countries have absolutely nothing, such as Australia.

When no government licensing solutions are available, the works cannot be used in many ways that libraries and patrons would like to use them. They may not be able to be preserved, digitised, or even circulated, in some cases.

Here are some questions to think about and to talk to your partner about:

  • Has the identity of a copyright owner ever affected your work as a librarian?
  • Does your library have many orphan works?
  • Is the use of orphan works something that affects you or your library?
  • Many libraries are involved in campaigns to change their countries’ orphan works laws—are you involved in something like that in your country?

Alison Makins, ILN’s Legal and Risk Consultant

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2015B and tagged , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *