Orphan works and Unitarian Universalism

Orphan works — works like books, music and film that are under copyright but for which no copyright holder can be found — live in a legal limbo, leaving them unused. A lost opportunity. Because older works have entered the public domain, they can be shared and adapted without permission, but for most works published after 1923 are under copyright. I’m thinking of the best general biography of George deBenneville and a number of anti-consolidation Universalist works in this camp.

A distinct, but real, problem is the republication of works with known publishers that have little or no commercial value. There’s no reason to bring them back to circulation for sale, and there’s no money to subsidize their publication for free.

So many Unitarian and Universalist documents from 1923 to the present are left in limbo, and largely unavailable. The ministers’ manual companion to the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit, official American Unitarian Association and Universalist Church of America reports, Laile Bartlett’s history of the Fellowship Movement Bright Galaxy (the Church of the Larger Fellowship has republished a piece here) and Robert Cummins’s Parish Practice in Universalist Churches are items I’d love to own — even as a PDF — but have a hard time even finding. It shouldn’t be so hard to have living-memory resources.

So I propose the following

  • support of orphan work legislation reform, like that proposed by Public Knowledge. (Disclosure: I know many Public Knowledge staff members; my employer and they are in the same office building.)
  • yet further: the humble and non-commercial publication of potentially copyrighted material where the copyright owner cannot be found or identified. I did as much with a slim volume of Esperanto hymns. (If a copyright owner comes forward, I’ll remove it.)
  • petitioning the Unitarian Universalist Association, Beacon Press and other copyright owners to make available PDF copies of important, currently unavailable works. I don’t even necessarily want a liberal license, which would allow for other to redistribute the work. Simple availability is the goal. (Of course, a license like one of these would be even better.)
  • But failing that, it would be helpful for those that have these scarce resources to identify and circulate them.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. One option that the UUA and other groups might consider is a print-on-demand publisher such as http://www.lulu.com — low-demand, out-of-print works could be published there, in a storefront they create, with both PDF and print options available. That would eliminate the need for a costly print run that might not sell — the printed copies would only be printed when ordered by a customer. Lancelot Andrewes Press, a Western-Rite Orthodox outfit publishing many traditional Anglican works, published nice editions of some works, and has a lulu storefront for books where the quality of the book is less important — although I should hasten to point out that lulu works are as nice as many commercially published works.

  2. I did a search at one time for that de Benneville biography, and did not find that Albert Bell renewed the copyright (which considering the situations in his life wasn’t too surprising). There is a website with book renewals (not periodicals, etc) – which shows very little Universalist books were renewed – with a larger handful of Unitarian items. By the way, I have an extra of that biography, do you need one?

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