Part 1. Unlocking Orphan Works: The Untold Stories of our Heritage

01 Dec 2023

Newspapers of multicultural historical significance, papers of prominent Australian women, and other ‘orphaned’ treasures may never be seen by many Australians due to outdated Copyright rules. The Australian Libraries and Archives Copyright Coalition is calling for urgent changes to the Copyright Act.

Cultural institutions across Australia play a vital role in collecting, preserving, and sharing knowledge and culture. However, within their collections lie a vast amount of creations that are categorised as orphan works. These are works that are still in copyright, but the creator or the legal copyright owners are untraceable or unidentified. Copyright of a work generally lasts for 70 years after the creator has passed away, and is automatically passed down to the beneficiaries of the creator’s estate. Without a clear copyright owner, orphaned works are left in a legal limbo.

 Orphaned material ranges from lesser-known items with minimal commercial value to creations by prominent figures in Australian history, both of which can make up a large proportion of collections held by cultural institutions. Unfortunately, current copyright laws don’t address the use of these works in today’s digital age. Justine Heazlewood, ALACC Chairperson said  “We strongly support introducing an orphan works scheme that provides clarity and reduced legal risks for users, while safeguarding the interests of copyright owners. We urge the Government to make changes to the law so that everyone can activate the full potential of orphaned materials in our nation’s cultural institutions”.

This series of case studies, compiled by the Australian Libraries and Archives Copyright Coalition, aims to shed light on the range of orphan works held within cultural institutions and provide glimpses of their untold stories.

Case Study: State Library of South Australia, Australijos Lietuvis

Australijos Lietuvis newspaper letterhead

Portait of Jurgis Glušauskas-Arminas

Portait of Jurgis Glušauskas-Arminas

Held within the collections of the State Library of South Australia is the legacy of Jurgis Glušauskas-Arminas. Arminas was a founder and sole editor of a newspaper for the Australian Lithuanian community, called Australijos Lietuvis which was published between 1948-1956.

Arminas began the publication in Leigh Creek after migrating to South Australia in 1948 and established a community-based committee to edit the newspaper. Jurgis put the community needs above all else and was focused on the cultivation and preservation of Lithuanian culture.

 Through the pages of the Australijos Lietuvis Jurgis helped connect Lithuanians who were widely scattered around Australia, many in remote areas, and ensured new arrivals to Australia were greeted with Lithuanian words. 

 Australijos Lietuvis was recently selected to be digitised as part of the Libraries Board of South Australia’s Community Newspaper Digitisation Project. Digitised copies of the pages will be accessible through Trove, an online initiative from the National Library of Australia that serves as a centralised hub to access a wide range of cultural and research materials from institutions across Australia. As a general rule, newspapers published in Australia after 1955 are still deemed to be in copyright and an extensive search was undertaken to trace a living family member of Jurgis which proved to be unsuccessful. Under section 200AB of the Copyright Act 1968 the State Library of South Australia was able to provide access to this incredibly rich resource of Lithuanian heritage in Australia. But, while this exception provides legal certainty for the Library, it does not allow researchers to use this material in publications or presentations. Consequently, historians and researchers face a difficult choice: exclude relevant quotes and images or take the risk of using material without explicit copyright permission. This dilemma highlights the need for a fit for purpose orphan works exception in Australia in order for the stories captured on the pages of the Australijos Lietuvis, to be shared widely with generations to come.


Photos in order of appearance:

Photo: Letterhead of the Australijos Lietuvis newspaper. Image supplied from the State Library of South Australia. 

Photo: Portait of Jurgis Glušauskas-Arminas. Image supplied from the State Library of South Australia.

Support Our Work

Associations and institutions are welcome to apply to become members of the ALCC.

Individuals sign up for our newsletter so we can let you know about our training and advocacy activities.