Orphan works are those whose owner cannot be located. Others who would like to use and share these works may hesitate to do so out of fear that they could later be found liable for copyright infringement because they didn’t get permission. ...The Orphan Works legislation would help resolve those fears and, in the process, encourage the display and re-use of these “lost” works.
Related: More on the intellectual property debate from the EFF. My mother just got me a copy of the book Permissions: A Survival Guide. When I've read and digested it I'll post thoughts here.