As the author of a work of narrative legal history with a focus on the early part of the 20th Century, the problem of orphan works is near and dear to my heart. Thanks to the overly generous copyright terms extensions granted by Congress in 1998, my ability to quote some very relevant unpublished manuscripts and to reproduce certain highly evocative visual materials was limited because, while the materials were still theoretically protected by copyright, it was impossible to ascertain what person or entity controled that copyright and was in a position to grant permission in a legally satisfactory form. By the same token, I have to acknowledge the possibility that my own book may very well be orphaned some day, and permissions that I would gladly give future writers and scholars will go ungranted. Indeed, I am aware anecdotally of worthy scholarly projects that have been abandoned in their incipiency because of seemingly insurmountable problems of this type. The worry, of course, is that after a book or article is in print, some distant heir or assign will come out of the woodwork and assert a claim.
I was glad, then, to see that the U.S. Copyright Office, has published in the Federal Register a notice seeking public comment on “the current state of play for orphan works” as part of its continuing review of the subject and “in order to advise Congress as to possible next steps for the United States.” The notice itself is a concise exposition of the problem, solutions that have been proposed in the past, past legislative efforts, approaches adopted in foreign countries, and the role of orphan works in the Google Library mass digitization litigation which we have been following here, here, and here. I commend it to your attention.