ArticlesVolume 41, No. 1 (2017)

Blockchains, Orphan Works, and the Public Domain

Jake Goldenfein1,

Dan Hunter1

1 Swinburne Law School


This Article outlines a blockchain based system to solve the orphan works problem. Orphan works are works still ostensibly protected by copyright for which an author cannot be found. Orphan works represent a significant problem for the efficient dissemination of knowledge, since users cannot license the works, and as a result may choose not to use them. Our proposal uses a blockchain to register attempts to find the authors of orphan works, and otherwise to facilitate use of those works.

There are three elements to our proposal. First, we propose a number of mechanisms, included automated systems, to perform a diligent search for a rights holder. Second, we propose a blockchain register where every search for a work’s owner can be recorded. Third, we propose a legal mechanism that delivers works into orphanhood, and affords a right to use those works after a search for a rights holder is deemed diligent. These changes would provide any user of an orphan work with an assurance that they were acting legally as long as they had consulted the register and/or performed a diligent search for the work’s owner.

The Article demonstrates a range of complementary legal and technological architectures that, in various formations, can be deployed to address the orphan works problem. We show that these technological systems are useful for enhancement of the public domain more generally, through the existence of a growing registry of gray status works and clarified conditions for their use. The selection and design of any particular implementation is a choice for policy makers and technologists. Rather than specify how that choice should look, the goal here is to demonstrate the utility of the technology and to clarify and promote its role in reforming this vexed area of law.