Orphaning Fanworks

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Synonyms: anonymizing fanworks
See also: Archive of Our Own, Deleting Fanworks, Fannish Regrets, Sharing Deleted Fanworks; works by orphan account on AO3.
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The ability to orphan a fanwork is a feature offered by Archive of Our Own, in which in a few clicks, a creator can permanently disassociate their name or pseud from a fanwork hosted on the site. Thereafter, the work will remain on the site unchanged, except that the creator's name associated with the work will be changed to "orphan_account" (or, if the creator so chooses, "[creator's pseud] orphan_account"). The work will no longer link to the creator's AO3 account and the creator will no longer be able to modify the work in any way. The act of orphaning a work cannot be undone. AO3 does not indicate what date a work was orphaned, and still shows the original publication date.

The term "orphaning" has made some fans uneasy[1][2], so the German translation team uses the word "freisetzen" (setting free) instead.[2]

Orphaning a work on AO3 can be seen as a reader-friendly alternative to completely deleting a work (from the archive or other locations on the Internet), as it allows readers who know the title of the fic to search for and find it, and includes the fic in search results at AO3 for readers looking for specific tags, pairings, or other relevant criteria, but still lets the writer disassociate their (current) pseud from fic they no longer wish to be explicitly associated with for whatever reason.

Orphaning works has been a function since AO3's inception.[3] The orphan work count hit 1,000 in 2011, 5,000 in 2013, and 10,000 in 2014. The count continued to grow with AO3, surpassing the 50,000 works in 2017.[4] As of June 2021, the account has 293,657 works, including the archive-locked.[5] The top five fandoms, roughly corresponding with the most popular fandoms on the entire site, are Supernatural, BTS, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Homestuck, and My Hero Academia.[5] Previous top-five fandoms that have since fallen off the list include One Direction, The Avengers (Marvel), Sherlock (BBC), and Teen Wolf.

From the Archive FAQ

What is orphaning?
Orphaning is an alternative to deleting a work that you no longer want to be associated with. It permanently detaches the work from your account and re-attaches it to the specially created orphan_account. Please note that this is permanent and irreversible; you are giving up control over the work, including the ability to edit or delete it.

Orphaning is a way to remove your connection to your works without taking them away from fandom altogether. We hope this account will be used by people who wish (for whatever reasons) to retire from fandom but are willing to allow their works to remain in the Archive. Works orphaned in this way will be maintained by the Archive to be enjoyed by future fans; existing bookmarks and links will not break. This function means that users can continue to share their contributions to fandom while having their privacy respected.

What information is removed when a work is orphaned?

  • Your name is removed from the author byline on the work and all its chapters.
  • Your name is removed from any comments you have left on the work.

What options are available?
There are a number of orphaning options available. You can choose to:

  • Orphan a single work - from the 'Edit' page for the work.
  • Orphan all your works - from the 'My Preferences' page on My Home.
  • Orphan all works posted under a specific Pseud - from the 'My Pseuds' page on My Home.

Once you have decided which work(s) you wish to orphan, you have two options:

  • Use the default orphan pseud. The work will be transferred to the orphan_account and the default orphan_account pseud. The byline on the work will read 'orphan_account'.
  • Make a copy of your pseud under the orphan account. The work will be transferred to the orphan_account, but a new pseud will be created with the same name as the pseud you used to author the work. As an example: if you authored the work using the pseud 'awesomefangirl', after orphaning the byline will read 'awesomefangirl [orphan_account]'. While the pseud will no longer link back to your account, if you have a very distinctive pseud this option might still allow a reader to identify you as the author.

Can I orphan a work which I have co-authored with someone else?
You have the choice of either removing yourself as a co-author, or orphaning your part of the work (with the same pseud options as above). Your co-author will not be affected and will remain a co-author of the work.

What happens if I want to orphan a single work in a series?
You can orphan the work normally, and the byline will be changed to reflect the new author name. Please note that the work will not be removed from the series - if you want it to be removed, you should do this before orphaning the work. If the work is kept as part of the series, the orphan_account will be listed as one of the authors of the series.[6]


AO3 does not retain an internal record identifying the user once a work is orphaned. A ticket was submitted in 2018 requesting an update to allow the system to retain the user ID for 72 hours after orphaning in order to prevent malicious abuse of the orphaning feature, but as of 2021 it is still marked "to do".[7]

However, not all orphaned works are anonymous. The site functionality allows the original username to be retained if the creator selects that option. AO3 bookmarks created before the orphaning might record the username, as well as reclists posted to other websites.

When a work is orphaned, any comments left by the user on the work are converted to orphan_account. However, other clues to the user's identity could potentially be left on the work. AO3 users sometimes put links to their website or social media accounts in the notes section. Text-only works are also much easier to anonymize than multimedia works; because AO3 hosts only text, any embedded media files would be from an account the user controls. Finally, there are over 400 podfics that have been orphaned; even if no other identifying information is left on the work, the sound of the podficcer's voice is a clue.

Of course, anonymity may not have been the goal of orphaning.

The Concept in a Broader Context

AO3's use of the term "orphaning" is likely inspired by a term in copyright law describing works that have not been officially "orphaned" in the AO3 sense, but instead exist in legal limbo. Wikipedia defines an "orphan work" as

a copyrighted work for which the copyright owner cannot be contacted. In some cases, only the name of its creator or copyright owner is known, and no other information can be established. A work can become an orphan because the copyright owner is unaware of their ownership, or the copyright owner has died, or the copyright owner is a company that has gone out of business, and it is not possible to establish to whom ownership of the copyright has passed. In other cases, the author and origin of a work simply cannot be determined, even after great diligence has been conducted.[8]

The impact of orphan works is far ranging: works cannot be used, languish, and eventually fall in obscurity. Even worse, the number of orphan works currently in the world today hinders digital preservation. In the United States, there have been several attempts to come up with legislation to create a process by which orphan works can be identified and used. These include the Orphan Works Act of 2008 which, after creating much uproar in both the professional and fan communities, died a quiet death.[9] Fandoms reactions to the Act were documented at fanhistory.com (archived link). The Library of Congress began soliciting comments regarding orphan works again in 2012.[10]

Orphaned Works and Blanket Permission

The copyright implications of AO3's orphaning feature do not seem to have been the subject of much public discussion by fanfic writers or AO3 volunteers. Occasionally fans pose a question on social media about how to get permission for or whether they can podfic, translate, or write a sequel to an orphaned work.

A few comments made by AO3 abuse and support volunteers indicate that AO3 considers orphaned works to retain their copyright and that the (unknown) creator has the right to grant or withold permission to archive copies or to make derivative works. In a 2022 guest post at ao3commentoftheday, OTW volunteer tealight said,

If you’re considering orphaning your work, know that Orphaning is just a method of anonymizing a work. You are still the creator and so you still own the copyright to that work even if nobody knows who you are anymore. You’re not “giving it up for adoption” or granting anyone permission to adapt your work. If you want others to be able to podfic or translate your work, you should include a blanket permission statement in the work itself.[11]

AO3 orphaned works may be classified as anonymous works from a legal standpoint. For anonymous works under U.S. copyright law, "the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first."[12]

However, clarifications from AO3 volunteers arrived over a decade after the archive was in use, and in the meantime, due to ambiguity in the FAQ on what orphaning does ("you are giving up control over the work"), part of the podfic community reached an internal consensus that orphaning was intended as an active choice to give up their copyright claim over a work. Thus, orphaned works are often considered to be fair game to podfic because blanket permission is implied in the act of orphaning.

Of course, podficcers are not a monolith, and people have posted public pleas on social media for authors to add a note about blanket permission before orphaning their works (because once it is orphaned, it is difficult for someone to prove that they are the author and officially grant permission to podfic).

There are likely also cases where an author either had blanket permission or granted permission to a podficcer, a podfic was then made, and then some time later the author orphaned the work, making it difficult to prove that the podfic was authorized.

The same issue potentially affects fan translations.


  1. ^ "I wish they weren't using the word orphan. It's too poetic, it puts to sharp a point on the abandonment, it makes me feel terrible. I have abandonment issues. Call me a thief for taking my story back and I can deal with it. Say I'm making my story an orphan, I'll cry." -- Ravings of an emotionally unstable fan., Archived version, by merricatk (2010)
  2. ^ a b "When it came to translating the unique concept of “orphaning”, the German team took the feedback on the English term into account. Some Archive users had expressed their unease with the negative connotation of the word “orphan”, and because of the flexibility of German verbs compared to English ones, we could pick a less negative compound verb. Instead of our initial favourite, the vivid verb “auswildern” (“release into the wilds”) we ultimately agreed on the more positive “freisetzen” (literally: “set free”)." From the Spotlight on Translation Volunteers "OTW news" post of 20 Nov 2011. (Accessed 11 Jan 2012)
  3. ^ The account was created 13 September 2008. See Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ works by orphan account at AO3 as of a 2017 page edit
  5. ^ a b orphan_account Works, Archived version (Accessed 29 June 2021)
  6. ^ Archive FAQ: Orphaning (Accessed 11 Jan 2012).
  7. ^ Store the user id of the original creator of a work, Archived version (Accessed 7 September 2021.)
  8. ^ Orphan Works on Wikipedia.
  9. ^ Orphan Works’ Copyright Law Dies Quiet Death by Wired dated Sept 30, 2008.
  10. ^ "The Copyright Office is reviewing the problem of orphan works under U.S. copyright law in continuation of its previous work on the subject and to advise Congress on possible next steps for the United States.".
  11. ^ Someone asked: What happens if we report an orphaned work for a TOS violation? Can it still be taken down, or should we not report them? What if the person orphaned their work after someone let them know it was against TOS?, Archived version, guest post at ao3commentoftheday by a Policy & Abuse volunteer, 27 April 2022.
  12. ^ U.S. Copyright Office: How Long Does Copyright Protection Last? (FAQ), Archived version (Accessed 7 September 2021.)