Copyright: licensing orphan works

Orphan works are creative works (such as photographs, film or piece of music) that are subject to copyright, but whose copyright owners are either unknown or cannot be found after a diligent search has been carried out.

These works are often contained in the collections of publicly accessible libraries, educational establishments and museums, as well as archives, film or audio heritage institutions and public-service broadcasting organisations.

You can apply for a licence to use such orphan works in the UK.

Search for orphan works

The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) maintains a register of orphan works. The register provides details of:

  • applications for orphan works licences
  • licences that have been granted
  • applications that have been refused

The register makes it possible for the right holders to check if any of their works have an orphan work status or have been licensed for use. Search the UK orphan works register.

Apply for an orphan works licence

As well as the register, the IPO also run the orphan works licensing scheme. Under the scheme, they can grant a licence to allow the use of orphan works on websites, in books and on TV without breaking the law.

An orphan work licence:

  • applies only for use in the UK
  • can be for commercial or non-commercial use
  • is not restricted to a single licensee
  • can last up to seven years
  • will be possible to renew

To get a licence, you will need to:

If your application is successful, you will also have to pay a licence fee. The fee will vary depending on the types of orphan work you want to use, and what you want to do with them.

The IPO will also send you the terms and conditions that apply to the licence. For more information on applying, see GOV.UK's guidance on orphan works.

Permitted use of orphan works under EU Directive

Cultural and heritage organisations may be able to use certain types of orphan works without licensing. This is only possible for certain types of projects under the provisions of the EU Orphan Works Directive.

The directive provides an exception to allow cultural institutions to digitise written, cinematic or audio-visual works and sound recordings and display them on their websites.

The EU rules only permit non-commercial copying. Unlike the UK orphan works licensing scheme, which is open to anyone, the directive restricts permitted use to cultural and heritage bodies only, eg libraries, museums and universities.

Check your eligibility under the EU directive.

Important: The EU orphan works exception will be repealed from UK law after the end of the Brexit transition period and will no longer apply to UK-based institutions. See orphan works and cultural heritage institutions: copyright from 1 January 2021.

For more information on orphan works, watch the IPO's video below.