NYT: Lessig on orphan works copyright

Stanford Law professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig had an opinion piece in the New York Times today worth reading, even if copyright issues aren’t your first concern. (“Little Orphan Artworks“)

The problem is that there quite a few mature works that are not old enough to be in the public domain but where the intellectual ownership is unknown. But there’s no registration and the proposed federal standard — to make a “diligent effort” to find the owner — is, in Lessig’s opinion, too much of a burden for those who might make use of a work that would other be lost to society. He proposes, within limits, a simplified, inexpensive and competitive registration system. I agree.

This matters for people in church life because so much of our soft culture — including songs, meditations, graphic images, recordings, sermons, liturgical elements, printed articles and the like — is of unknown or apocryphal origin. Can it, ought it be used? Or do we just turn a blind eye? An orderly system of rights maintenance makes for good boundaries and better practice.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Thanks for linking this. Lessig makes sense but the chances of his advice being followed seem slight Google and the net has made this research somewhat simpler (easier to pin down a pre-1923 publication date at least) but there’s still a big grey area. Several years back we were attempting to compile a hymnal for MCC, on a very limited budget which didn’t allow for the kind of “diligent effort” mentioned here. We left some things out that we just couldn’t verify and a centralized registry would have helped tremendously.

  2. You are so right to highlight Lessig’s op-ed piece in the church context. I also agree with his concluding paragraph — that in this day and age more, rather than less, clarity around copyright should be the order of the day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, for example, uua.org could have (or link to) a copyright FAQ? And there one could find clear, unambiguous answers? It’s impossible in the current age, and I gather much of the obfuscation relates to the music industry right in my backyard.

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