New "Orphaned Works" Copyright Bill Threatens Open Source, GPL

[Update: It appears I may be completely wrong on this issue. I'll leave the original article below for posterity...]

A new bill, The Orphan Works Act of 2008, is currently making its way through congress, and it threatens to take away copyright protection from unregistered works. This includes virtually all open source software.

Essentially, the bill (as I understand it -- and I'm not a lawyer) will modify copyright law such that if the owner of a work can not be found by "reasonable search", anyone can use the work for whatever they want, regardless of the author's intentions, or the license the work was released under.

This means companies could ignore the GPL, or any other open source license, simply by claiming they couldn't find the author. If a copyright holder decides to sue, the infringing party just has to show proof that they performed a "reasonable search".

The bill requires anyone who wants to maintain their copyright to register it (presumably for a fee) in a database with the following information:

  • The name of the owner of the infringed copyright.
  • The title of the infringed work, any alternative titles of the infringed work known to the owner of the infringed copyright, or if the work has no title, a description in detail sufficient to identify it.
  • An address and telephone number at which the owner of the infringed copyright may be contacted.
  • Information from which a reasonable person could conclude that the owner of the infringed copyright’s claims of ownership and infringement are valid.

You can read the bill for yourself here: H.R. 5889 - Orphan Works Act of 2008

How this would affect multi-author works like open source software is unclear. Who would pay for and maintain the registration? How many pieces of open source software will lose their GPL protection because the original author can not be easily found by searching a copyright database?

If you don't think this bill is a good idea, here are some resources you can use to take action.

Posted by John on 2008-07-03