After passing in the Senate, the Orphan Works bill has died in the House, at least until after the election.
Kevin Geiger sums it up:
Orphan Works legislation attempts to address a long-standing problem that recently came to a head at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where curators are sitting on a vast collection of family photos from Holocaust victims – unwilling to exhibit them for fear of statutory damages and attorney’s fees. These photos are so-called “orphan works” with no identifiable owner. The problem of orphan works is very real. In short, an “orphan work” is one that is protected by copyright, but whose creator/owner cannot be identified and located. Given that copyright law currently protects your work for the course of your lifetime plus 70 years beyond your death, there is plenty of time to lose track of who owns what – especially in the case of unmarked works. Those in favor of Orphan Works legislation include most curators and archivists, librarians and publishers, writers and documentarians.
Essentially, the bill would create a “I made a good faith effort to find the owner of the work” defense. So, for instance, the good folks at ASFIA could put more of their archives of orphaned cartoons from 60 years ago online, without having to worry that an unfindable copyright owner will suddenly pop up and sue them out of existence.
I’m in favor of the Orphan Works Bill, but it seems that most of my fellow cartoonists — such as Ted Rall and Coleen Doran — are against it. They’re worried that the OWA would be a license to steal cartoons and other visual works.
Under any imaginable copyright law, there would be cases of people stealing art and getting away with it. I think it comes down to which people find to be a worse outcome: A copyright law that favors artists but hurts archivists, historians, museums, academics, etc; or one that makes things easier for archivists et al but at the price of letting a few more people “get away” with stealing.
Anyhow, I’m mainly posting this so that I have a place to store relevant links, since this issue will probably come up again sometime in the next year. (I hope it will, anyway). So, links: I debated the bill a bit with Ted and others in comments here. There’s a discussion on the Comics Journal messageboard. Posts in defense of the bill from Public Knowledge, Fractured Atlas, the US Copyright Office, The Animation Options Blog (1 and 2), Radio Free Meredith, Kynn, and Trixie Belden (1 and 2).
Also, a good article in Print Magazine opposing the OWA.