Copyrights are being extended all over the world to very long periods of time (currently U.S. copyrights last for 50 years after the author's demise for most works). The longer the wait (after publishing) for the copyright to expire, the higher the chance that the book is "lost" due to unavailability of copies from which to record the text and/or illustrations. As someone who does a small bit of work for Project Gutenberg (an organization dedicated to recording books), I worry about all of the books that will never be read by future generations because no one thought them important enough to keep around. For that matter, there are also many kinds of books that are being "lost," such as photography books, graphic novels, and such.
Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps 100 years from now, if no one had considered your works important enough to preserve, no one will even miss them, but can you imagine not having "Neverwhere" available because no one could record it due to copyright restrictions and before it went out of print forever? What if Orwell's "1984" hadn't been so highly regarded? What if it had been thought so ludicrous when it first came out that it didn't sell? Sure, it would have been forgotten, so no one would miss it; but wouldn't that rob future generations of the chance to decide?
Do you think there should be a compromise to copyright law whereby printed materials can be stored in a main (electronic?) archive concurrent with publication so that these materials will be available when their copyright expires and not be eternally adrift in the "out of print" sea? Like you said regarding "Angels & Visitations," you couldn't imagine anyone paying $200 a copy, but 100 years from now, it may not be available at any price.
Obviously the matter of all these "disappearing books" is a deeply disturbing one, and one that I'd find a bit more convincing if it came with any evidence that this happens with any frequency.
In the UK the copyright act of 1911 ensures that....
Publishers and distributors in the United Kingdom and in Ireland have a legal obligation to deposit published material in the six legal deposit libraries which collectively maintain the national published archive of the British Isles. These are:
The British Library
The Bodleian Library, Oxford
Cambridge University Library
The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
The Library of Trinity College, Dublin
The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
Publishers are obliged to send one copy of each of their publications to the British Library. The other five libraries have the right to claim those publications from the publishers and distributors. In practice many publishers deposit their publications with all six libraries without waiting for a claim to be made.
The principle of legal deposit has been well established for almost four centuries and has great advantages for authors and publishers. Publications deposited with the libraries are made available to users in their reading rooms, are preserved for the benefit of future generations, and become part of the national heritage. http://www.llgc.org.uk/cla/legaldeposit.htm
and in the US...
Mandatory Deposit Requirements
On January 1, 1978, all works published with a notice of copyright in the United States became subject to the mandatory deposit requirements of the United States Copyright Act (title 17, United States Code). These requirements are similar to the "legal deposit" or "depot legal" laws in effect in other countries.
On March 1, 1989, the qualification "with notice of copyright" was eliminated from the mandatory deposit provision. This change was made in Public Law 100-568, the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988. As a result of this change, all works under copyright protection and published in the United States on or after March 1, 1989, are subject to mandatory deposit whether published with or without a notice.
The mandatory deposit provision ensures that the Copyright Office is entitled to receive copies of every copyrightable work published in the United States. Section 704 of the Copyright Act states that these deposits "are available to the Library of Congress for its collections, or for exchange or transfer to any other library." http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ07d.html
This is a case of copyright giving and taking away. On the one hand, it stops people reprinting the books at will without paying anyone; on the other it makes these "disappearing books" of yours a pretty much imaginary (technically: made-up) phenomenon. The books are there, on deposit, and available to be read.
Is the system foolproof? Not entirely, as anyone who's put in a request for a book at the British Library and got a slip of paper back informing them that that book was lost when the book depository it was stored in was bombed during the blitz, learns very rapidly. But I don't think that making copyright expire on the day of death (is that what you want?) would have helped that.
Authors who die have estates, some of us, anyway. If a book is out of print, the author's estate will normally be quite keen on bringing it back into print. Have you thought about starting a small press publishing house, and bringing back into print, physically or as e-books, books that you feel have unjustly disappeared? You may find the author's family quite grateful for the royalties, or just to have their mother's or aunt's or father's book back in print after all these years.
If authors die without estates, or you can't trace the estate, if there's no-one to get royalties and and there's no-one to authorise or forbid a book from being published, then the book is effectively in the public domain, 75 years after death or no, and no-one is going to stop you from inputting it to Project Gutenberg, publishing it, or creating an operatic song cycle about it.
Having said all that, yes, I think an electronic archive is a very good idea. I don't think it should replace a physical archive, though. (These days most publishers expect a copy of the book on disk. Most publishers send a digital book to the printer. There's no reason not to have that digital book stored in the various copyright office locations.)
As a side note here, I don't just see this stuff as hypothetical. For years, Penn Jillette and I have been trying to get hold of the rights to an obscure book written in 1926. We want to turn it into a movie. It's been out of print for fifty years. (And bookfinder.com and abebooks.com found us all copies in moments. It hadn't disappeared that much.) The author died in 1946, and the book would have gone into the public domain in 1996. However, in the early 90s under the current EEC copyright laws, copyright was extended to 75 years after death, which means that the book is still in copyright. It took us years to trace the person controlling the rights to the book -- the author's granddaughter -- and there's no guarantee that we'll be able to get the film rights from her.
I think it would be great if the book in question could be brought back into print. (The author's granddaughter thinks so too.) It would also be great if Penn and I could get the film rights. It would have been much easier and cheaper for us if the 50 year law applied in the UK. But it doesn't. The family gets to decide what they do with the film rights. The family gets to make some money out of it. As an author, I like that.
If the copyright office wants to give heirs and assigns an extra 25 years of control over the disposition of a book, I think that's a good thing. I see no evidence that it's causing books to disappear.
So that's my take on "disappearing books".
There. I spent much too long burbling about copyright, when I wanted to talk about putting in a grape arbour (which is what all the people who have been to the house over the last few days have found themselves dragooned into doing -- assembling it, staining it, installing it).
A few weeks back Kelly Link and Shelley Jackson (Two Women! One Birthday!) stopped here overnight after doing a reading in Minneapolis (at DreamHaven during a thunderstorm). Shelley's diary entry includes photographs of her and all the body parts she found on a short walk through the woods. (Looking at the photo of the mysterious probably-a-rabbit organ, rather than just blinking down at something glistening and distant and rainbow-purple that a cat had left helpfully on the back-door mat, it doesn't look like a liver at all. More like an alien.)
(This was back when the arbour was still bits of wood in a box in the barn, as it had been since 1999, which is why they don't talk about it.)
Shelley's book, The Melancholy of Anatomy is out and strange and wonderful. http://www.ineradicablestain.com/
Kelly Link is the author of Stranger Things Happen and is one of my favourite writers in the whole world. I wish she would write more.
If you want to catch Shelley and Kelly, as their tour finishes (I should have put this up at the start of the tour) -- they are driving across the US in Shelley's van, currently heading back this way for the last lap....
23 May, 8.00 PM, Ruminator Books, 1648 Grand Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (651) 699-0587
NEW! 24 May, 7.00 PM, Canterbury Books, 315 West Gorham (at State Street), Madison, WI 53703 (608) 258-9911 or 800-838-3855
(with Tina Jens)
(24-26 May, Wiscon, Madison, WI)
28 May, 7.00 PM, Shaman Drum Bookshop, 311-315 S. State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104 (734) 662- 7407