Free the Orphans uses the phenomenon of the “orphan work”—a creative work whose copyright holder is impossible to identify, rendering it difficult to gain permission for distribution or use—to expose the paradox between the current ease of sharing information digitally and the existing regime of long-term copyright and new forms of fine-grained control. The orphan work functions as an epistemological ready-made, a fragment of found knowledge whose legal and existential origins create fertile ground for questions about the ownership, distribution, and uses of knowledge in a digital culture. We suggest that all of us seek out these “orphan” prisoners and “free” them, bringing them back into circulation. We invite you to join us by “fostering” and restoring to view the actual orphaned works you’ll find on this site.


Clarinda Mac Low Free(d) the Orphans, with help from the audience and other collaborators. Rescuing texts and photos that exist in copyright limbo, Mac Low mines the archives and creates a new collection, bringing in many partners (including you) to help give the orphans a voice, playfully prodding at the limits of intellectual property in a digitized age. Photos from the 1939 World’s Fair, failed pornography, false confessionals, living manuscripts, and more populate a variety of structures (made by Erica Bailey) and situations, with physical and digital open access libraries.

Foster an orphan! You can download .pdfs of several orphan books here, including failed pornography, a false confessional, an alternative religious text, science of dubious origin, and a dissection of the degenerating American woman.

The orphans made it back home. We brought the orphan works back to their origins. A mobile gallery of photos from the World’s Fair of 1939 visited the Unisphere, Hart Crane’s biography took a trip over the Brooklyn Bridge, and essays about Alexander Hamilton took a nostalgic journey to the newest site of the Hamilton Grange.

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