An orphan work is a copyrighted work whose holder is either entirely unknown or cannot be located. There is no formal legal definition of an orphan work, however, it is reserved for cases where a current copyright holder cannot be located after reasonable effort was put forth to identify them. Orphan works were an unintentional byproduct of the Copyright Act of 1976, which essentially eliminated mandatory registration for copyrights and instead declared that all original works were granted copyright status by their very nature. As a result, the government could not maintain a central recording database for all copyrights and their respective holders, as it does with patents and trademarks. Since then, many copyright protected works have arisen with no author attributed to them, due to anonymously published works or identity information is missing over time. Even if a copyrighted work’s author was known previously, issues such as inheritance of the copyright can make the current copyright holder unidentifiable.
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Dr. Thomas R. (Terry) Williamson III is a Patent Attorney practicing in Atlanta, Georgia.
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