British Library/ARROW Study on Orphan Works

Major ARROW study demonstrates key issues in clearing the rights of Orphan Works from 1870-2010 and the importance of the ARROW system

The British Library, as part of the wider EU funded ARROW (Accessible Registries of Rights Information and Orphan Works) project [1], has today published a study into rights clearance and mass digitisation which examines the issue of orphan works – works for which the rights holder is untraceable.

‘Seeking New Landscapes: A rights clearance study in the context of mass digitisation of 140 books published between 1870 and 2010’ found that more efficient ways of clearing rights and providing cultural institutions with legal certainty over their activities are needed to ensure that highly valuable research materials don’t remain out of reach of the vast majority of citizens.


Key highlights of the report include:

  • Whilst it could take 1,000 years for one person to clear the rights of just 500,000 books manually – equating to 4 hours per book – the use of the ARROW system would reduce this dramatically to less than 5 minutes per title to upload the catalogue records and check the results;
  • Of the total number of potentially in-copyright works 43% were orphan works, equating to 31% of the total sample.
  • The type of publisher had a large impact on whether works were orphaned, with self-published works accounting for 51% of all orphan works in the study;
  • The decade which featured the most definitely in-copyright orphan works was the 1980s (50%) which demonstrated that although age may be a factor in whether a work becomes orphaned, even material from the recent past is clearly affected by this issue.

Through analysis of a representative set of titles published within the 140 years between 1870 and 2010, the study demonstrates a need for innovative solutions in relation to mass digitisation projects. The study found that manual rights clearance of works on an individual, item by item basis is unworkable in the context of mass digitisation which can potentially involve the copying and making available of millions of copyright works.

Examples of works that were part of the study included such titles as diverse as an illustrated children’s book from the 1920s, travel guides and local history material from throughout the 20th century, political pamphlets from the 1960s and 1970s and poetry and early ‘fan fiction’ from the 1980s.

Due to the complexities of identifying rights holders and clearing works the study found that it took an average of 4 hours research and clearance activity per book – with some works very quick to research and others taking significantly longer than 4 hours. At 4 hours per book it would take one researcher over 1,000 years to clear the rights of just 500,000 books – a drop in the ocean when compared to the rich collections of Europe’s cultural institutions. In contrast the use of the ARROW system would take less than 5 minutes per title to upload the catalogue records and check the results.

The significant presence of orphan works strengthens the case that a legislative solution for this category of works is needed across Europe to allow access to millions of highly valuable research materials. The study also shows that the development of the ARROW system is highly encouraging, indicating that it could provide a technical solution to support diligent search and new rights clearance processes and support legal access to millions of highly valuable research and other materials. In the UK, the ARROW system should become a key plank of the Digital Copyright Exchange as recommended by Professor Ian Hargreaves in his recent governmental review of intellectual property and growth – Digital Opportunity – A Review of Intellectual Property.