A new EU-wide copyright agreement has been signed to increase the number of films made available to the public online by cultural institutions.

The films targeted are so-called 'orphan works,' where the true rights holders of films, music or books, are impossible to identify or locate. The problem means that rights cannot be cleared in the normal way and the works usually end up being made redundant due to the legal uncertainty.

Until now, the problem has also meant that orphan works could not be digitised or made available to the public.

The new Memorandum of Understanding agreed at EU level sets out how searches for rights holders should be handled for libraries and archives and film companies, so that such works can be made available.

It provides a long awaited solution to a very real problem for Europe's cinematic and cultural institutions. A recent survey by the Association des Cinemathèques Europeennes shows that up to 50,000 unfulfilled requests have been made to re-use orphan works in Europe's film archives.

A British Film Institute spokesperson welcomed the new agreement, saying: 'Digitisation of the BFI National Archive to broaden public access is a critical priority. We heartily welcome this declaration and the clarity it brings, particularly as we strive to preserve and make available orphan works that, without our intervention, might otherwise get left by the wayside and never be seen by the public.'

The Memorandum was signed by libraries, archives and right holders bodies in front of European Commissioner for Information Society and Media, Viviane Reding. Commissioner Reding has worked to promote the digitisation and online accessibility of Europe's film heritage through the Digital Libraries Initiative.