Licensing orphan works in the UK

From 29 October 2014, it is possible to apply for a licence to copy a creative work for which the copyright holder cannot be traced.

Known as 'orphan works', these are materials of creative and culturally valuable nature, such as diaries, photographs, oral history recordings and documentary films, that are subject to copyright, but whose copyright owners are either unknown or cannot be found.

Prior to 29 October 2014, copying such works would have meant infringing UK copyright laws. The new licensing regime provides open access to these works for commercial and non-commercial purposes without the risk of infringement.

Orphan works licensing scheme

The licensing scheme for use of orphan works is operated by the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO). Under the scheme, the IPO can now grant a licence to allow orphan works to be reproduced on websites, in books and on TV without breaking the law.

An orphan work licence:

  • will apply 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:

  • check that the work you wish to license is still copyrighted
  • check that the work does not fall within one of the copyright exceptions
  • carry out a search for rights holders in accordance with IPO guidance
  • demonstrate in your application that you have carried out this search

For more information on what you need to do before you apply, see GOV.UK's guidance on orphan works.

Orphan works licence costs

Users of the orphan works licensing scheme will have to cover costs of an application fee, as well as a market rate licence fee. The latter will be used by the IPO to compensate right holders for the use of their work should they come forward to claim their ownership rights in the future.

The licensees will have to adhere to the terms and conditions that apply to the licence. Learn more about the costs: application and licence fees.

Orphan works register

The IPO will maintain a register of orphan works that are subject to an application, those that have been granted a licence and those refused a licence.

The register will make it possible for the right holders to check if any of their works are being considered as potential orphans or have been licensed for use. Search the orphan works register.

Permitted use of orphan works under EU Directive

Cultural and heritage organisations may be able to use certain types of orphan works for certain types of projects under the provisions of the EU Orphan Works Directive instead.

The directive also came into UK law on 29 October 2014 and 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 and, unlike the UK orphan works licensing scheme which is open to anyone, they restrict permitted use to cultural and heritage bodies only, eg libraries, museums and universities. Check your eligibility under the EU directive.

Watch the IPO's video on copyright: orphan works.