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Old 11-22-2020, 10:28 AM   #1
pwalker8
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Orphaned books

I was digging through my old paperbacks this morning and came across two books that are classic examples of orphaned works. Orphaned books is the great gap in copyright law that most acknowledge as an issue, but few are willing to actually address. Basically, these are books where the author is dead and the actual copyright holder is either unknown or basically indifferent to the work. Thus, the books are unavailable except in a used format and there is not real way for them to get back into print.

The books in this case are the Merlin's Ring series by H. Warner Munn who died in 1981. Merlin's Godson, published in 1976 is a combined reprint of two of his earlier works - King of the World's Edge first published in 1939 and The Ship from Atlantis first published in 1967. Merlin's Ring was published in 1974, was part of Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series and is generally considered Munn's masterwork. It was last in print in 1981.

Odds are pretty good that most people who are younger than me will never have heard of either book much less read it, it's been out of print for 40 years and as far as I know, it's never been released in hard back. Even if re-released, neither book is likely to generate much revenue.
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Old 11-22-2020, 10:33 AM   #2
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Just under 32 years until they come into the public domain. Brilliant.

There are also examples from the world of computer games. Some can't be republished because big firms won't dig through their archives to find out which firm has the rights to a game (all the old contracts being on paper), but would be willing to do so if they were able to sue someone for copyright infringement.
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Old 11-22-2020, 10:41 AM   #3
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I know of several orphaned author's works. One was orphaned because the company went belly up, a publisher bought a few of the works and abandoned this deceased author's. Author had no heirs. Since then the company owner died with no heirs. Two other authors died with heirs who subsequently died without heirs. This is going to happen more and more as there are a lot of authors who have neither children nor siblings. In most cases, states can take any remaining assets except for copyrights.

At least one enterprising person took my conversions of an author's works that were orphaned (see first instance above) and issued them on Amazon. Has the same mistakes in my original. In some ways, I'm miffed, but on the other hand, a new generation will be able to read these as regency romance is still popular.

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Old 11-22-2020, 11:03 AM   #4
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There's at least one H Warner Munn available in ebook - Tales of the Werewolf Clan:
© 2015 John Warner Munn, Jr., under license to Altus Press. John Munn is HW's grandson.

I think this may be an omnibus of the two original volumes; I have both in the hardback editions from way back when.

I used to own the Merlin series in paper edition, but only have a single book now - the Ace edition of King of the World's Edge. Sadly, they don't seem to be available.
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Old 11-22-2020, 12:34 PM   #5
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IMHO, simple ("claimed") copyright should belong to the author and nobody else. The copyright lasts as long as the author does ... the author dies, and the work becomes public domain. No complicated formulas that look at years - just a simple question, "Is the author dead or alive?" Easy way to determine basic copyright.

If the author wants their work to "stay in the family" after their death for future royalties or whatever, then there should be some method to "register" a copyright for a limited amount of time. The author can't just "claim" after-death copyright without formal action. If they want the copyright to outlast them, the formal action of registering it, specifically defining successor owners, is required. And there would be no posthumous registration of copyrights. The author has to initiate the action while they are still alive.

I would go even further, and say that all copyrights (whether claimed or registered) can only be owned by an individual. No corporations. And to further thwart "copyright selling/trading", no individual may hold more than 100 copyrights, except for the author. Once the author has registered 100 of their copyrights to an individual, they have to find a new individual for the next 100, and so on. This default limit of 100 could be overridden by the registration agency on a case-by-case basis. Their job being to verify that the copyright is going to an actual individual, not a person acting as a front man for a corporation.
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Old 11-22-2020, 12:40 PM   #6
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IMHO, simple ("claimed") copyright should belong to the author and nobody else. The copyright lasts as long as the author does ... the author dies, and the work becomes public domain. No complicated formulas that look at years - just a simple question, "Is the author dead or alive?" Easy way to determine basic copyright.
You're the author. You write your book and it's published today. Tomorrow you die. What should happen to the copyright?
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Old 11-22-2020, 01:55 PM   #7
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There's at least one H Warner Munn available in ebook - Tales of the Werewolf Clan:
© 2015 John Warner Munn, Jr., under license to Altus Press. John Munn is HW's grandson.

I think this may be an omnibus of the two original volumes; I have both in the hardback editions from way back when.

I used to own the Merlin series in paper edition, but only have a single book now - the Ace edition of King of the World's Edge. Sadly, they don't seem to be available.
Interesting. Maybe there is hope after all, though I'm not sure why he picked that one rather than the Merlin's Ring series. Maybe Altus does werewolves. Went ahead and picked it up.
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Old 11-22-2020, 01:56 PM   #8
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You're the author. You write your book and it's published today. Tomorrow you die. What should happen to the copyright?
What should you care? You're dead. Copyright is "to encourage the arts". Pretty hard to encourage a dead man to write.
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Old 11-22-2020, 02:07 PM   #9
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IMHO, simple ("claimed") copyright should belong to the author and nobody else. The copyright lasts as long as the author does ... the author dies, and the work becomes public domain. No complicated formulas that look at years - just a simple question, "Is the author dead or alive?" Easy way to determine basic copyright.

If the author wants their work to "stay in the family" after their death for future royalties or whatever, then there should be some method to "register" a copyright for a limited amount of time. The author can't just "claim" after-death copyright without formal action. If they want the copyright to outlast them, the formal action of registering it, specifically defining successor owners, is required. And there would be no posthumous registration of copyrights. The author has to initiate the action while they are still alive.

I would go even further, and say that all copyrights (whether claimed or registered) can only be owned by an individual. No corporations. And to further thwart "copyright selling/trading", no individual may hold more than 100 copyrights, except for the author. Once the author has registered 100 of their copyrights to an individual, they have to find a new individual for the next 100, and so on. This default limit of 100 could be overridden by the registration agency on a case-by-case basis. Their job being to verify that the copyright is going to an actual individual, not a person acting as a front man for a corporation.
That, of course, is not going to happen. There is too much money involved with regard to the Mouse and the small group of books that generate all the money.

The real issue is there is no constituency for rationalizing the copyright laws and plenty who like the laws just as they are. I would tend to argue that an author and his or her heirs should be able to retain copyright for a given time, but after the initial 7 year period, the copyright is only valid as long as the book is available for purchase, at least for books. Other types of work probably need different laws. With ebooks, there is no reason for a book not to be available for purchase.
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Old 11-22-2020, 06:11 PM   #10
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What should you care? You're dead. Copyright is "to encourage the arts". Pretty hard to encourage a dead man to write.
But your family would get nothing if the copyright want to PD upon death. Plus, the publisher has some rights.
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Old 11-22-2020, 06:46 PM   #11
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The UK has a scheme now that allows orphan works to still be used.

Copyright Orphan Works

You can apply for a non-exclusive license to use an orphan work. You have to pay an application fee, a license fee and demonstrate you've made a "diligent search" for the copyright owner. The license lasts for 7 years and is limited to the UK. Any license fees generated are held for up to 8 years and if the rights owner comes forward the fees are handed over and no new licenses will be granted.

Seems like a good idea. Not sure how well it works in practice. I took a quick look at the register and there weren't many works on it.
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Old 11-22-2020, 07:13 PM   #12
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In the USA the original copyright term was 14 years. Then things became public domain. Publishers have always lobbied to increase that and they've often been successful. Personally I think 14 years was kind of long. Books go out of print in a year; usually less.

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Old 11-22-2020, 08:16 PM   #13
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But your family would get nothing if the copyright want to PD upon death. Plus, the publisher has some rights.
So? In every other occupation, your family gets nothing after you die, why should being an author be different? Just because some rich Frenchman got mad at the idea that someone, somewhere was making money on a book he wrote and he wasn't getting his cut?

I'm sure the publisher can keep publishing to the limit of the contract. In general, contracts are voided by the death of one of the parties. There are exceptions of course, it all depends on how the contract is written.
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Old 11-22-2020, 08:23 PM   #14
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Suppose the author used a pen name. Common enough. Or another ambiguous name. Someone discovers their work 10 or 20 or 50 years later, how do they identify the author and whether they're still alive?

Suppose it's a magazine and some of the contributors used pen names. Someone's trying to republish their archives 10 or 20 or 50 years later, how are they to know if they can post each issue?

Last edited by MarjaE; 11-22-2020 at 08:26 PM.
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Old 11-22-2020, 08:27 PM   #15
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The UK has a scheme now that allows orphan works to still be used.

Copyright Orphan Works

You can apply for a non-exclusive license to use an orphan work. You have to pay an application fee, a license fee and demonstrate you've made a "diligent search" for the copyright owner. The license lasts for 7 years and is limited to the UK. Any license fees generated are held for up to 8 years and if the rights owner comes forward the fees are handed over and no new licenses will be granted.

Seems like a good idea. Not sure how well it works in practice. I took a quick look at the register and there weren't many works on it.
What is a "license fee"? Is there a set percentage of the retail price that is set aside? This seems to be a law well-suited to big corporations, who can more easily defer the fees for eight years before claiming them. I would also suspect that it is easier for them to convince the administration that all efforts were made to search for the copyright holder. It seems like a law meant to placate those championing the opening up of orphaned works, while providing the "frictions" that allow the big IP companies to keep control of the market.
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