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I'm especially interested in books that do not have any commercial value (i.e. the cost of publishing is much higher than any foreseeable return).

I know that the answer may vary depending on country.

  • The shareholders will keep it, or whoever gets the company assets. – Greendrake Jan 17 at 20:48
  • While the answer may varies depending on the country you may also should look up the Universal Copyright Convention – Swizzler Jan 17 at 20:53
  • @Swizzler Actually the Berne Convention has now almost totally superseded the UCC. US law, for example, is now largely based on the Berne Convention. It will be relevant here. – David Siegel Jan 19 at 1:19
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Unless the work has entered the public domain (after the copyright expires, or if a copyright notice or renewal was omitted when these were required, or in other ways) there is always an owner of the copyright.

If the copyright was retained by the author, who has died, than the author's heir(s) own it. (If there are no other heirs, it becomes the property of the state. This is known as escheating.)

If the author has sold or assigned the copyright (say to a publisher) then the buyer or assignee owns it.

If the owner is a business that has ceased to operate, but has not sold the copyright, then the shareholders or proprietor has the right to sell or license it (technically the business still owns it). If the business goes through legal bankruptcy, the copyright would be sold, possibly as a part of "and all its other assets and good will", or else would escheat to the state.

It can be hard to find the copyright to a work long unpublished. The original author may have died, and the author's heirs may be hard to track. The copyright may have been sold, and the sale may not have been properly recorded. In the US, the Copyright Office maintains records that try to identify the copyright owner of all registered copyrights. The office will search these, for a fee, but there is not always a correct or useful answer.

Under current US law, if one cannot find the correct owner of a copyright, and secure permission to use it, one is simply out of luck (except for musing, where a compulsory license is available for some uses at a government-specified fee). Any use is then infringement (unless it is a fair use) and the owner could always turn up and sue.

The term "orphan works" has been applied to works whose copyright owner is unknown and hard to find. The same term is also applied to works whose copyright holder is known, but which are long out of print and unlikely to be reprinted, particularly when there is no paying market for them.

In the US, there have been several proposals for dealing with "orphan works" by granting a compulsory licensee for them, or by declaring them to be in the public domain, or by taxing them and declaring them to be PD if he tax goes unpaid. None of these have been passed into law in the US, nor have similar proposals been made law in any other country that I know of. (declaring Orphan works PD might cause a problem under the Berne Convention.) To be honest, as there is little economic value in orphan works, no one will spend much money or energy in lobbying for such a law, and the industries that make their money via copyright (music and film in particular) are often suspicious of and automatically oppose anything that weakens copyright in any way, or seems to. In any case, no such law has yet passed. (Edit I now learn that Canada and the EU have laws giving access to orphan works under some circumstances, and other countries may have such laws.)

It is true that the owner of the copyright on an orphan work may well be unlikely to sue for infringement of that copyright. The owner may not even know that s/he owns the copyright. But a user could never by fully safe, because the owner (or a new owner after a transfer) could always choose to sue for any continuing infringement, and any past one if the statute of limitations has not run out.

This answer is largely based on knowledge of US law, but I believe that this situation is basically the same in most countries.

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When a publisher purchases copyright in a word (not just licenses, but gets a transfer), or if the item is a work for hire commissioned by the company, it is their property, to be disposed of just like tangible property of theirs. If they are bought out by another publisher, the copyright would transfer to the new owner, just like barrels of ink and tables would. It's also possible especially if it is a small publisher that they simply stop operating as a business, and they liquidate some of their assets, but may not have found a buyer for this copyright. Then it depends on who has legal ownership interest in the business. If F. Jones is sole proprietor of Jones Publishing, he owns the copyright. Supposing that Jones dies without heir, then along with his other property, copyright escheats to the state. This is not dependent on the marketability of the work. However, if the work has substantial value, you can assume someone will make an effort to legally acquire the copyright, and if it does not, it's unlikely that anyone will bother.

  • So if the copyright has no value and nobody cares about it, the book become de facto a hostage? Isn't there any law that protects the mankind from the loss of culture due to uncaring copyright holders? Copyright is by far less important than culture. – mmj Jan 17 at 22:28
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    @mmj Yes, these are known as orphan works. There is something of a debate on how to handle these, but right now they're still under copyright protection, even if it's not clear who actually owns those rights. As Wikipedia mentions, some jurisdictions have special provisions for such works that may provide exceptions. – Chris Hayes Jan 17 at 22:33
  • If you know the copyright owner is dead, you also know that you can't be sued for infringement (only the owner can sue). The problem is that a potential publisher can't know for certain that the owner is dead. – user6726 Jan 17 at 22:51
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    @user6726 Someone (person or entity) always owns the copyright (until the work enters the public domain). The owner may not know it (being an heir, say) or may not care, but there is an owner. It could always be transferred later, by sale or inheritance, and such a later owner could still sue. Or the owner could become aware of the copyright and the infringement, and decide to sue. It is never the case that an infringer can't be sued since the owner is dead, if the work is not yet PD. It may well be that suit is unlikely, if the original author is dead, and the heir is not interested – David Siegel Jan 17 at 23:36

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