Senate and House versions of orphan works bills, which would make copyrighted works available for licensing even if the owners cannot be located, moved forward today. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to report the bill to the Senate floor for vote, while a House Judiciary Subcommittee voted to report the bill to the full Judiciary Committee.

Under the bills, potential users of these so-called "orphan works" could use a copyrighted work if, after a thorough, documented search, the user is unable to locate the copyright owner. The legislation outlines some criteria for such a search, and provides for court review to determine if a search has been adequate and conducted in good faith. If the copyright owner later emerges, the user must pay reasonable compensation to the owner -- but would avoid liability for copyright infringement.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act (S. 2913) last month. The senators believe that amendments adopted today will strengthen and streamline the requirements for conducting an acceptable search for the copyright owners before the users will be protected from infringement liability.

"This legislation will help bring orphaned works out of the shadows and into the light for everyone to enjoy," says Leahy. "We have worked to strike the right balance to protect the interests of copyright owners and potential users of orphan works. This bill allows all Americans to enjoy pieces of history, without eliminating necessary and long-established copyright protections."

Hatch adds, "This is a good bill. There are scores of superb music, literary masterpieces and magnificent photos and art that clump corners, collect dust, fill floors and dot shelves in attics and storage rooms across the nation - items of immense artistic and historic merit that are unavailable to Americans because their owners are unknown and people are leery of making the work publically available for fear of being sued. This vital legislation provides a mechanism to unlock these orphan works and bring them out in the public domain so Americans can enjoy them once again. It strikes an appropriate balance between protecting against copyright infringement and preserving our national and personal history."

In the House, Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Lamar Smith (R-Tex.)introduced the Orphan Works Act (H.R. 5889) last month. At today's markup hearing before the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, Berman also introduced amendments meant to clarify the type of searches a potential user must conduct for the owners.

Berman encouraged music groups and others to "constructively participate" in discussions with him over the next two weeks to address their concerns before the full Judiciary Committee considers the bill, but he said that this bill will move forward.