"Orphan works" describes works that are presumably still copyrighted, but whose owners may be impossible to identify and/or locate. The resulting "uncertainty surrounding ownership of such works might needlessly discourage subsequent creators and users from incorporating such works in new creative efforts, or from making such works available to the public" (U.S. Copyright Office).
In 2005, the Copyright Office commissioned several studies on the topic in order to better understand the problem and identify legislative solutions. The resulting report and new bill, H.R. 5439 "Orphan Works Act of 2006" (PDF) recommended changes to U.S. copyright law, including limiting remedies for infringement against users who have made a reasonable, good-faith, documented attempt to locate the copyright owner, and identifying remedies should the copyright owner subsequently re-appear.
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