The University of Michigan (UM) Library is currently researching whether digitized works it has stored in the HathiTrust digital repository are orphans—works that are in-copyright but for which rights holders cannot be found. (Several other university libraries, including those of the University of California, Duke, Emory, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins, joined the orphan works project recently.)
UM has posted an online list of the works it believes to be orphans so far. After 90 days, if no rights holders come forward, those works will be made fully accessible online to UM students and faculty. Many of the works on the list are obscure—a 1949 typographer’s desk manual, anyone?—but a few are quite familiar. Case in point: a 1933 English translation of French author Jean de Brunhoff’s The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (1931).
Now, the fictional character of Babar—an elephant whose mother is tragically shot by a hunter—is an orphan. But the idea that the popular children’s book was an orphan as well struck me as odd. After all, de Brunhoff’s heir, his son Laurent, is very much alive—indeed, he authored the latest Babar book, Babar’s Celesteville Games, published only last month.
I contacted UM’s lead copyright officer, Melissa Levine, to ask why Babar was on the list. She said it was because researchers could find no current information for its 1933 publisher, H. Smith and R. Haas. (The book’s current U.S. publisher is Random House.) However, in light of the questions its inclusion has raised, Levine said the book would be pulled from the list for further research.
Whether The Story of Babar gets taken in at the orphanage or not remains to be seen, but the system that UM came up with—publicizing lists of suspected orphan works so rights holders can weigh in—appears to have another useful purpose: it effectively crowdsources the research beyond the rights holders themselves.
Indeed, any informed people with Internet connections can assist the project by contacting UM with relevant rights information. Who better to help than librarians?