Term used to refer to a work protected by copyright, whose ownership is unknown or very unclear. Because the owner cannot be identified in order to obtain legal rights to use the work, it can languish unused and become forgotten. The orphan work problem is particularly prevalent where there has been a copyright term extension under the TRIPS.
The problem of orphan works with unidentified owners has been recognized by various copyright offices, who are discussing solutions, which will likely consist of compulsory licensing at a fee set by the copyright office or another agency, with fees and royalties held in trust for the putative owners. Resolving the issue where ownership is disputed presents a yet more complex problem.
The issue has in part been addressed in the EU by the Orphan Works Directive which requires member states to legislate so as to allow museums, libraries, universities and public service broadcasters to publish orphan works (after a diligent search for the rights holder) subject to fair compensation.