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. From 29 October 2014, it has been possible to apply for a licence to copy such works.

Apply for an orphan works licence

The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) run the orphan works licensing scheme. Under the scheme, they can 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 applyingy, see GOV.UK's guidance on orphan works.

Orphan works licence costs

If you wish to apply for an orphan works licence, you will have to pay:

  • an application fee
  • a market rate licence fee

The IPO will use the latter fee 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 follow the terms and conditions that apply to the licence. Learn more about the costs: application and licence fees.

Orphan works register

The IPO maintains an orphan works register with 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 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 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.

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