Orphan works and cultural heritage institutions: copyright after Brexit

Cultural heritage institutions may be at risk of infringng copyright if they have orphan works online after Brexit.

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After Brexit, the EU Orphan Works Directive will no longer apply to UK-based cultural heritage institutions - for example libraries, museums and archives.

UK cultural heritage institutions (CHIs) may face claims of copyright infringement if they make orphan works available online in the EEA, including works they had placed online before Brexit.

Actions for UK cultural heritage institutions

UK cultural heritage institutions will have to:

  • remove any orphan works currently placed online
  • consider seeking a licence under the UK’s orphan works licensing scheme
  • where they have a licence to use the work in the UK, consider limiting access to users based in the UK to avoid copyright infringement in the EU

Changes for UK orphan works scheme licensees

The UK’s orphan works licensing scheme allows orphan works to be licensed in the UK for commercial and non-commercial uses, subject to the user paying application and licence fees and completing a diligent search for the right holder.

Licensees will no longer need to consult the EUIPO orphan works database as part of the diligent search. No other changes will be made to the diligent search requirements or the licensing scheme in general.


Orphan works are copyright works for which the right holder is not known or cannot be found. Because orphan works are protected by copyright, they cannot be used freely, even though it may be impossible to get the right holder’s permission.

Under the EU Orphan Works Directive CHIs based in the EEA are granted an exception that allows them to digitise and make orphan works available online across all EEA member states without the permission of the right holder.

CHIs must register orphan works used under the exception on a database maintained by the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO.

In the UK, the exception to copyright infringement for orphan works will be repealed after Brexit.

Published 18 October 2019