Who would have thought that the most heated debate yet at the 2007 Microsoft Pro Photo Summit would be the one over the soon-to-be-passed federal copyright law on “orphan works,” photos floating on the internet or in print with no photographer’s name attached.

It’s not news that lots of photographers are concerned about their copyrights. But what happens when an art director, publisher, or advertiser finds an orphan work and wants to use it? According to the proposed law, essentially such photos are free to use provided the user makes a good-faith effort to find the picture’s maker. If the photographer turns up after the fact, he or she must be paid “reasonable compensation.” Sounds decent enough.

So why all the debate? Many photographers in the audience (and one on the panel) not only are wary of the roomy term “reasonable compensation,” but distrust corporations to seek them out and hand them money. And should they find an instance of unauthorized usage of their images, they point out that it’s not easy for photographers, in business for themselves, to fight a big company in court.

While there are a lot of strong feelings all around, we want to know how photographers can use technology to protect their work and police it to the utmost. We also wonder whether, the way photographers have had to learn to accept the move to royalty-free stock photography, pros now will need to loosen their grip on their photos. Where do we go from here?

For more on the debate, check out the American Society of Media Photographers’ take on the subject. Or, for all the gory details, visit the U.S. Copyright Office‘s website. —_Debbie Grossman, Associate Editor