I thought this was an interesting article. It reminds me of a case I once heard about from a copyright lawyer:
A publishing company decided to republish a book that was on their backlist. The original contract of course stipulated that the author had to be paid royalties, something they hadn't had to worry about for some time because the book wasn't in print. Most contracts say that if the book goes out of print for a certain amount of time (usually 5-10 years), the rights revert entirely to the author and the author can republish the book with a new company if he/she chooses to, or can negotiate a new contract with the old company if it wants to keep the rights to the book. In this case I don't remember if the publishing company still had partial rights or not; the point was they wanted to publish the book and they had to alert the author.
The problem was they couldn't find him.
The author had vanished without a trace, leaving no living relatives in charge of an estate that would manage the book rights. Living relatives can only get book rights if the will stipulates it; in this case the author had no will and couldn't even be proven to be dead. The publishing company hired the contract lawyer, who went to the judge with all of the documentation. The judge ruled that they had to do a certain amount of regular attempts to find the author - hiring private investigators, posting in newspapers, etc - and if nothing came up, they could republish the book without the author's permission. If, however, the author then reappeared or the author was proven dead and a will surfaced granting rights to living relatives, the publisher would then have to pay back-royalties to the author/author's estate.
I thought this was a very interesting case. A week after I heard him speak, I got my first offer from a publisher. It's been a few years now and I have two books published and a couple in the can. On the way home from shul on Yom Kippur my family happened to walk home with our lawyer/accountant, and I mentioned to him that I should write a will soon because I now have a literary estate that will last for 70 years after my death. It might be a minuscule or nonexistent estate, but it will be there. In fact it will probably be longer than 70 years, as they keep extending that number whenever Mickey Mouse is about to go into public domain, and books I publish in the future may fall into a later time-period extension.
I'm actually against the extension of copyright laws to the point that it has now reached for the written word. Works in the public domain are more published and better-read as a result, and if an estate is large then children are likely to squabble over it, sometimes preventing a book from being republished long enough for it to disappear entirely. Do my potential, currently non-existent heirs need to benefit that badly? If I were to live another forty years, which is extremely possible, my current books won't go into public domain until 2119. Does that sound ridiculous to anyone else?