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When programming for our film festival Widescreen Weekend, finding prints and rights is often a crucial step in bringing a programme of classic, cult and sometimes rare film to audiences.

Very often, it is not immediately clear who the owner of a film actually is, and it takes a great deal of research to find out. Sometimes, however, that information is just lost altogether…

Unlocking orphan films

Archives are full of materials that are not accessible to the general audience. The reasons are myriad; some material is rare and may need to be copied before it can be accessed. Other material might be deteriorated and in need of preservation before it can be shown again.

And then there is material where there is no clear rightsholder and the ‘owner’ of this material has been lost to time. In film, these are called ‘orphan works’. In the collection of the British Film Institute (BFI), an estimated 100,000 films are ‘orphans’.

Recent changes in UK copyright law have enabled heritage institutions to make orphan works available to the general public on the condition that a ‘diligent search’ of the rightsholder is made—a certain amount of steps that need to be made in order to prove that a search has been diligent. In practice, however, the search requirements are laborious, and archives do not necessarily have the resources to complete a search for all orphan titles.

The EnDOW project that ran from 2014–18 has designed a Diligent Search Tool to help facilitate the process. The online platform enables users without specialised copyright knowledge to carry out diligent searches on behalf of heritage institutions.

The new EnDOW Community project is looking to recruit and train volunteers (the ‘community’), who will help the BFI, and other UK national and regional archives, to clear the rights in a large amount of orphan films. The ultimate goal is to unlock an immense wealth of material that will be available for the public to enjoy, and perhaps even creatively reuse.

Archival film material enters into everyone’s lives on more occasions than one might realise. During lockdown many people have been binging films and television series. Sometimes that material is enjoyed through a platform that exceptionally offers free content during the pandemic, and sometimes through a subscription model, such as Netflix. What many viewers might not realise is that being able to see and enjoy films is intrinsically entwined with the copyright status of those films.

Lockdown has also seen an incredible unleashing of creative reuse of existing material. Building on existing material in funny memes, or in TikTok videos, has become such an everyday practice we don’t even question it anymore. Making new work based on existing work is also intrinsically entwined with the copyright status of the source material.

By signing up to EnDOW Community, you can help unlock orphan films for the public to enjoy, and to creatively reuse.

The EnDOW Community research project is based at the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management at Bournemouth University, UK, and benefits from large expertise in both copyright law as well as film archiving and filmmaking.

For more information, and to register your interest to become a volunteer in the project, please visit the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management webpages and the EnDOW Community Diligent Search tool.

One comment on “Unlocking orphan films with the EnDOW Community

  1. Thanks for this great Blog post! In Mexico City, our filmmaking collective the Laboratorio Experimental de Cine has been digitizing a collection of Orphan videotapes over the course of the pandemic. We discovered this TV advert, yesterday: https://archive.org/details/coll-hp-0372-20001109-demo-cinematica-umatic-0372-trim-natl-mus-photo-film-tv and performed a “Diligent Search” for it, before posting it online. Hope you enjoy!

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