The exact origin of the term orphan film is unclear. By the 1990s, however, film archivists were commonly using this colloquialism to refer to motion pictures abandoned by their owners. Before the end of the decade, the phrase emerged as the governing metaphor for film preservation, first in the United States, then internationally.
Historians and archivists define the term in both a narrow and a broad sense. A report from the Librarian of Congress, Film Preservation 1993, offered a first definition. As a category of so-called orphan works, orphan films are those “that lack either clear copyright holders or commercial potential” to pay for their preservation. However, a much wider group of works fall under the orphan rubric when the term is expanded to refer to all manner of films that have been neglected. The neglect might be physical (a deteriorated film print), commercial (an unreleased movie), cultural (censored footage) or historical (a forgotten World War I-era production).
This broader conception is typically illustrated by a list of orphaned genres. In Redefining Film Preservation: A National Plan (1994), the Librarian of Congress enumerated newsreels, actuality footage, silent films, experimental works, home movies, independent fiction and documentary films, political commercials, amateur footage, along with advertising, educational and industrial films as culturally significant orphans. To this the National Film Preservation Foundation adds animation, ethnic films, anthropological footage, and fragments. (See "What Are Orphan Films".)
Within a decade the epithet was adopted by scholars and educators. In The Film Experience: An Introduction (2004), for example, Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White include a section on orphan films, defining them simply as "Any sort of films that have survived but have no commercial interests to pay the costs of their preservation."
Defined in this way, more films are orphans than not. Many are more accurately described as “footage,” recordings shot on celluloid but not intended to be completed works or theatrical releases. The millions of feet of home movies and newsreel outtakes alone outnumber the quantity of film stock used to make all of the feature films ever released by Hollywood studios.
The resurgent interest in these films is due to their rich value as cultural and historical artifacts. Documentarians, filmmakers, historians, curators, collectors and scholars have joined forces with archivists because they deem orphans not only historical documents, but also evidence of alternative, suppressed, minority or forgotten histories.
Since 1999, hundreds of these devotees have gathered for the biennial Orphan Film Symposium. In their introduction to the anthology Mining the Home Movie (2008) Karen Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmermann assess the impact of these symposiums.
In 1999, film historian Dan Streible and several other interdisciplinary faculty members at the University of South Carolina initiated a symposium on orphan films that drew together archivists, film historians, artists, curators, and other to discuss and screen works within a rigorous scholarly context. Orphan Film Symposium I was entitled “Orphans of the Storm: Saving Orphan Films in the Digital Age” and was held in September 1999. Orphan Film Symposium II, “Documenting the 20th Century,” was held in March 2001; Orphan Film Symposium III, “Sound/Music/Voice: Listening to Orphan Films,” in September 2002; and Orphan Film Symposium IV, “On Location: Place and Region in Forgotten Films,” in March 2004. These four symposia have functioned to generate new research and curatorial activities and have lent increased visibility to the orphan film cause. They have also provided a significant academic and curatorial context for amateur film research. The Orphan Film symposia, together with an important presence for orphan, amateur, and small-gauge films within the Association of Moving Image Archivists throughout the 1990s and afterward, suggest the coalescing of various international and regional movements to look more closely at these subaltern cinemas.—
After the fifth Orphan Film Symposium, "Science, Industry & Education," took place at the University of South Carolina (March 2006), New York University took up the project, incorporating it into the Cinema Studies department's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation master's program. Orphans 6 took place in New York City in March 2008, focusing on neglected films and videos by, about, against, and under "the state." The most recent NYU edition was held at the SVA Theatre in New York City. This seventh symposium, "Moving Pictures Around the World" (April 2010), included 80 speakers from 17 nations, 80 films, and more than 300 participants.
In 2001, members of these professions began referring to an “orphan film movement.” As archivist-scholar Caroline Frick has written, some of the most active participants identify themselves as “orphanistas,” passionate advocates for saving, studying, and screening neglected cinema. In 2004, visual anthropologist Emily Cohen wrote that the movement's creative and intellectual ferment constituted an “Orphanista Manifesto.” 
More pragmatically, in the United States the group's rising influence affected discourse and policies about copyright reform, joining the broader media reform movement. Examples of this include the 2003 Supreme Court case Eldred v. Ashcroft and the 2006 Copyright Office Report on Orphan Works. In September 2008, the U.S. Senate passed a bill (S.2913) "to provide a limitation on judicial remedies in copyright infringement cases involving orphan works," but the House of Representatives adjourned before addressing the measure.
Although U.S. copyright stakeholders confine their discussion to the narrower definition of an orphan (a work with no identifiable rightsholder or whose rightsholder cannot be located), the broader conception—an orphan film as a neglected object—continues to be used internationally. Film archivists working quite separately in different nations have used the orphan metaphor for a decade. At the Cinemateca de Cuba, for example, the term "huérfanos" has been used to conceptualize the lost and abandoned works of Cuban film history, its "huerfanidad." The Nederlands Filmmuseum preserves and programs its "Bits & Pieces" series of unidentified film fragments, its "foundlings." The China Film Archive in Beijing uses a translatable orphan film metaphor as well.
Another indication of the international interest in orphan films was filmmaker Martin Scorsese's announcement of a World Cinema Foundation (WCF) at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Press reports stated that the WCF would preserve "orphan" films. By 2008, however, the WCF's mission statement referred only to "neglected" films rather than orphans, as the foundation helps fund preservation of lesser known theatrical motion pictures, which remain under the legal ownership of some party. World Cinema Foundation
In April 2008, members of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) unanimously endorsed a "Declaration on Fair Use and Access". The ninth of its ten points simply states: "FIAF supports efforts to clarify the legal status of 'orphan' motion pictures and related promotional and historical materials for the purpose of preservation and public access." Shortly thereafter, on June 4, 2008, the European Union announced the signing of a new "Memorandum of Understanding" on orphan works. The EU's Digital Libraries Initiative produced the statement. Signatories included key institutions in moving image archiving and representatives of rightsholders: Association Des Cinematheques Europeennes, the British Library, European Film Companies Alliance, Federation Europeenne Des Realisateurs De L'audiovisuel, Federation Internationale Des Associations De Producteurs De Films, and the International Federation Of Film Distributors. See EU Press Release on Orphan Works.
- Gregory Lukow, "The Politics of Orphanage: The Rise and Impact of the 'Orphan Film' Metaphor on Contemporary Preservation Practice", paper delivered at the University of South Carolina symposium, "Orphans of the Storm: Saving Orphan Films in the Digital Age", September 23, 1999. http://www.sc.edu/filmsymposium/archive/orphans2001/lukow.html . As early as October 1950 Industrial Marketing magazine referred to 16mm industrial sales movies as orphan films. Restoration expert Robert Gitt was quoted using the metaphor as early as 1992, to refer to silent-era films, newsreels, and kinescopes. Robert Epstein, “Mining Hollywood's Old Movie Gold,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 1992, p. F1.
- Film Preservation 1993: A Study of the Current State of American Film Preservation: Report of the Librarian Of Congress, by Annette Melville and Scott Simmon, Washington, DC: NFPB/LOC, 1993. http://www.loc.gov/film/study.html
- Redefining Film Preservation: A National Plan; Recommendations of the Librarian Of Congress in Consultation with the National Film Preservation Board, coordinated by Annette Melville and Scott Simmon, Washington, DC: NFPB/LOC, 1994. http://www.loc.gov/film/plan.html
- Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, The Film Experience: An Introduction (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004), 391–98. They add to the list of orphaned genres government-produced films, citing What You Should Know about Biological Warfare (1952) This film is viewable as a digital file at http://www.archive.org/details/WhatYouS1952 as part of the Prelinger Collection of “ephemeral films.” Collector-activist Rick Prelinger is one of the people most responsible for raising awareness of orphan films.
- Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann, eds. Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 12–13.
- Caroline Frick, Restoration Nation: Motion Picture Archives and 'American' Film Heritage, PhD diss. University of Texas at Austin, 2005, UT Austin library PDF, and in Frick's Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation, (Oxford University Press, forthcoming); Emily Cohen, “The Orphanista Manifesto: Orphan Films and the Politics of Reproduction,” American Anthropologist (December 2004), 719–31.
- Dan Streible, "The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive," Cinema Journal 46.3 (Spring 2007): 124–28.
- Asch, Mark. "Three Questions for Cullen Gallagher About the Orphan Film Symposium," The L Magazine, January 22, 2010.
- Boyle, James, et al. Access to Orphan Films, submission to the Copyright Office, from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Duke University Law School, March 2005.
- Cave, Dylan. “Born Digital – Raised an Orphan?: Acquiring Digital Media through an Analog Paradigm,” The Moving Image 8.1 (Spring 2008): 1–13.
- Cherchi Usai, Paolo. "What Is an Orphan Film? Definition, Rationale, Controversy." Paper delivered at the symposium "Orphans of the Storm: Saving Orphan Films in the Digital Age", University of South Carolina, September 23, 1999. Transcript at http://www.sc.edu/filmsymposium/archive/orphans2001/usai.html
- Cherchi Usai, Paolo. "Are All (Analog) Films 'Orphans'? A Pre-digital Appraisal," The Moving Image 9.1 (2009): 1–18.
- Coffey, Liz. “Orphans of the Storm III: Listening to Orphan Films,” The Moving Image 3.2 (Fall 2003): 128–32.
- Cohen, Emily. “The Orphanista Manifesto: Orphan Films and the Politics of Reproduction,” American Anthropologist 106.4 (2004): 719–31.
- Cullum, Paul. “Orphanistas! Academics and Amateurs Unite to Save the Orphan Film,” L.A. Weekly, Apr. 26, 2001.
- Eagan, Daniel. “Orphan Films: Recapturing Lost Snippets of History,” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2010, www.smithsonianmag.com.
- Fishman, Stephen. The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-free Writing, Music, Art, & More, 3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: Nolo, 2006.
- Frick, Caroline. “Beyond Hollywood: Enhancing Heritage with the 'Orphan' Film," International Journal of Heritage Studie 14.4 (2008): 319–31.
- Frick, Caroline. 'Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation' (Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Goldsmith, Leo. "Adventures in Preservation: A Report from the 7th Orphan Film Symposium," Moving Image Source, June 10, 2010.
- Horak, Jan-Christopher. “Editor's Introduction,” The Moving Image 6.2 (2006): vi–viii.
- Horak, Jan-Christopher. “The Strange Case of The Fall of Jerusalem: Orphans and Film Identification,” The Moving Image 5.2 (2005): 26–49.
- Libby, Jenn. "Foundling Films: Orphans 5: Science, Industry and Education", Afterimage (May/June 2006): 11.
- Longo, Regina. “Fifth Orphan Film Symposium: Science, Industry, and Education,” The Moving Image 7.1 (Spring 2007): 92–94.
- Musser, Charles. “Documentary Before Verité,” Film History 18.4 (2006): 355–60.
- Musser, Charles. Foreword to Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema by Dan Streible (University of California Press, 2008), x–xvi.
- “Orphans No More: Ephemeral Films and American Culture,” issue of the Journal of Popular Film and Television 37 (Fall 2009), ed. Elizabeth Heffelfinger and Heide Solbrig.
- Orgeron, Devin. “Orphans Take Manhattan: The 6th Biannual Orphan Film Symposium,” Cinema Journal 48.2 (Winter 2009): 114–18.
- “‘Orphan Films’ Course to Screen Eight Neglected Works at Guild,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 23, 1979.
- Prelinger, Rick. The Field Guide to Sponsored Films. San Francisco: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006.
- Prelinger, Rick, with Raegan Kelly. “Panorama Ephemera,” Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, vol. 2.
- Schwartz, Eric J. and Matt Williams. “Access to Orphan Works: Copyright Law, Preservation, and Politics,” Cinema Journal 46.2 (Winter 2007): 139–45.
- Streible, Dan. “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive,” Cinema Journal 46.3 (Spring 2007): 124–28.
- Streible, Dan. "The State of Orphan Films: Editor's Introduction," The Moving Image 9.1 (2009): vi–xix.
- Wilson, Rachel. "Moving Pictures Around the World: The 7th Orphan Film Symposium," Senses of Cinema, 55 (2010).
- Ziebell Mann, Sarah. “A Meditation on the Orphan, via the University of South Carolina Symposium,” AMIA Newsletter 47 (Winter 2000), 30, 33.
- Orphan Film Symposium websites at New York University (Cinema Studies Dept., Tisch School of the Arts),  and at the University of South Carolina (Film and Media Studies Program, College of Arts & Sciences), , including "What is an orphan film?" http://www.sc.edu/filmsymposium/orphanfilm.html. These sites include audio recordings of talks given at the symposia.
- National Film Preservation Foundation