(If you think this blog entry is about the 1922 film Orphans of the Storm by D. W. Griffith, you're not entirely wrong; wait until the end.)
With digitization of books being a hot topic, some of you may have heard of the term "orphan works." In brief, an orphan work is a work where the copyright holder cannot be found. For musical works, many assume that "the copyright holder" is simply the composer, but this is not always true. The copyright holder can be the composer's descendents, relatives, lawyers, or anyone that the creator designates as a legal successor after the creator's death. (When the musical work has been composed "for hire" then the copyright holder could be the corporate entity that commissioned it.)
Even when the copyright holder cannot be found, generally one is not allowed to reproduce their work. Fortunately, exceptions are made for museums, libraries, archives, and similar institutions when reproducing orphan works for non-commercial study, when such reproductions will not have a negative impact on the value of the product. (You can read more about about the issue at: The “Orphan Works” Problem and Proposed Legislation by Marybeth Peters, The Register of Copyrights.)
Here in the Music Division we occasionally run into the issue of orphan works when users want copies of music for which the copyright holder cannot be found. Nearly all such requests are for unpublished works, usually in manuscript. (For published works, the copyright holder is often listed as the publishing company, not the composer or creator.) Let's take a look at some of them.
Alexander Grechaninov (1864-1956) was a Russian composer who arrived in the United States shortly before World War II and died in 1956. (I remember playing simple piano pieces by him when I began studying piano.) In addition to writing classical music, Grechaninov also wrote a number of liturgical works for use in the service of the Russian Orthodox Church. We have not been able to discover any heirs.
Kurt Schindler (1882-1935) was a German musician. In a career that started out in a traditional manner, Schindler moved to New York, where he eventually became a specialist in Spanish folk music. The value of this work is such that, well over 50 years after his death, musicologists from Spain have made trips to examine his papers. His wife pre-deceased him by 13 years; they had no children. We have not been able to discover any heirs. (As of 2006 - 70 years after his death - his unpublished work is now in the public domain in the United States.)
Jakob Schönberg (1900-1956) was a composer who often incorporated Jewish themes into his work. In addition to our cache of manuscripts, there is a Jakob Schönberg Collection in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary here in New York. Neither we nor JTS have been able to discover any heirs.
Tracking down and maintaining a list of heirs can be difficult work. When requests arise, the staff of the Music Division (and the Library in general) have been assiduous in trying to locate relatives, heirs, and others who would hold the rights to the many unpublished documents in our division. For a particular composer we used to routinely direct patrons to his widow in Washington state. When she died suddenly (leaving no children) we thought we were lucky when we discovered the composer's brother living in Manhattan. But when we called to speak to him, his long-term home attendant answered the phone, telling us that the advancement of Alzheimer's disease made it impossible for him to speak cogently with us, and saying that she was unaware of any other family members. He passed away shortly thereafter, leaving no heirs. My own personal interest in genealogy has enabled me to share with coworkers some strategies for finding living relatives when no heirs were designated. The permissions department of Ask NYPL Express maintains an even more extensive database for all kinds of works.
If you're wondering where the 1922 film Orphans of the Storm fits in to all of this, here's how: The film (starring Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish) was based on a stage play, The Two Orphans. First produced in 1874, there was a production staged in 1904 directed and produced by David Belasco. The Library has Belasco's papers, and the Music Division has a large collection of the scores written for and used by Belasco in his productions. As can be seen in the picture above, the score for The Two Orphans was assembled by George S. Stevens. Who is this person? With such a common surname (Ancestry.com lists numerous George S. Stevenses in the U.S. Census as of 1910), it would take an enormous amount of time to figure out who he was and to determine if he had any descendents. If he had died by 1938, then his work is in the public domain, but if he hadn't....?
Let's hope that the U.S. Congress passes legislation that both protects copyright holders, but also provides flexibility when dealing with orphan works to help further research and study.