Hal Varian has a piece in today's New York Times on the issue of orphan works, discussed earlier here. It begins:
"Here’s a quiz question for authors: To copyright a written work in the United States, you must (a) register it with the Copyright Office; (b) insert a notice that says 'Copyright © 2007'; (c) insert a notice that says 'All rights reserved.' Answer: none of the above. Under current law, a work is automatically copyrighted the moment it is 'fixed in tangible form.'"
He goes on to point out that "since there is no requirement to register a work ..., the legal owner of a work can be difficult to find, particularly when the work is more than a few decades old," and summarizes the current proposed legislation to address the issue:
"Under [the proposed legislation], if you conducted a 'diligent search' to locate a rights holder and still failed to find the owner, you would be off the hook. You could then incorporate the work in question into your own work, as long as you provided proper attribution. If the legitimate rights holder was subsequently found, he or she could not require that your work be withdrawn from circulation, but could collect 'reasonable compensation' for use."
He notes that the proposal is "still on the back burner in Congress," but says it is "certainly a step in the right direction" and "hope[s] that it soon gets the attention it deserves." He also mentions an alternative proposal being pushed by Stanford lawprof Larry Lessig, "a system where authors receive an automatic copyright when they create new works, but they must register their copyright within 14 years to retain it past the initial period."