Abby is a bilingual literature lover. In addition to reading books in both English and Spanish, she herself is a writer and she also does translation work.
She's found the work of a particular author (let's call him Pedro) to be particularly moving. Pedro is American but the the work is written in Spanish and Abby wants very much to translate it into English. But she's run into some problems.
First off, Pedro is dead. This means she can't contact him to find out how to get the rights to translate his work. When this is the case, the rights to an author's work are either transferred to the person stipulated in the author's will or, if the author's will doesn't make provisions, the rights are divided up with the rest of the author's property according to intestate laws. Pedro's rights were apparently transferred to a guy who, for the sake of argument, we'll call Jerk (because that's what he's ended up being). Jerk appears to have the rights to Pedro's work, and he's not letting anyone else have them. It saddens Abby, because she loves Pedro's work and she wants to translate it into English so that more people in the U.S. can read it. She even has a "hot" agent interested in her project--IF she can get the translation rights. But the agent's not really doing anything else until Abby gets those rights.
Abby found out more about the book's publication history. The book was originally published in Spanish by a small publisher in Miami as the result of Pedro winning a contest. Jerk helped him to edit the book, which may be why he's the one currently holding the rights. The original publisher of a work usually holds the translation and foreign sales rights of a book as stipulated in the author's contract, so Abby thought that the original publisher of Pedro's work might still have these rights. She contacted them but was told that they no longer held the rights to the work and that they no longer had any other information available on the author or his work either. Abby then found out that the book had been published in Spain. When she tried to contact them, she was told that the rights were held by Jerk. She's now contacted a French publisher who did a French-language edition of the book and is waiting to hear back from them.
In the meantime, what can Abby do? Pedro died in 1993, so the end of the life-plus-seventy-years term of copyright protection is rather a long ways off. Unfortunately, if Jerk is the only person still holding the rights to translate the book, Abby's hands are tied. Since the work is still protected by copyright, any translation Abby published of Pedro's work without holding the rights would be considered a copyright infringement and Abby would be involved in a lawsuit.
This is one of those maddening instances when I get really frustrated at how long copyright lasts in this country. It's particularly frustrating in this instance because there's actually an interest in publishing Pedro's work, which would financially benefit Jerk. Abby isn't sure why he's being so protective of Pedro's rights, but he is. At this point, what should Abby do? If she hears back from the French publisher and their answer is negative, does that mean all hope is lost and she must resign herself to a life of pining away for the Translation that Never Was?
Not quite yet. There's one more thing Abby can do. Since the work was written in the U.S. by an American, it is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. The Copyright Office allows people to conduct searches to investigate the copyright status of a work. Abby can search their catalog and other records in their Washington, D.C., office for free to find out who currently holds the rights. Or, since the work was registered after 1978, she can use their online database to conduct a search. Or she can have the Copyright Office conduct the search for her for a fee of $150 an hour.
Abby can search online to get more information about Pedro's copyright registration. (I recommend viewing the tutorial that's available on this page to get a better idea of how to use the search function and understand your results.) In Abby's case, I think she should use the online search function to get more information about Pedro's copyright and then perhaps she can contact the Copyright Office with questions about contacting the current copyright holder.
This is, of course, an unfinished story, as Abby still has to conduct her search of these records and also hopefully will be hearing from the French publisher soon. I'll post an update once Abby has found out more information.
It can be frustrating to run into walls such as this one when you're trying to republish work that's still protected by copyright--a copyright closely guarded by seemingly irrational people. Certainly Abby's situation is not unique; I had a professor who encountered the same problem when he tried to publish a dead poet's collected works. Some poems were already in the public domain, but some were not and my professor discovered that the rights were still held by a poet's relative. The relative refused to allow my professor to have the rights to include the protected works in the collection. Why? The relative stood to benefit financially from the arrangement and also would not have had to go to the trouble of doing any work herself; my professor would have done everything editorially and otherwise. Perhaps she thought she could publish the work on her own? Perhaps she just didn't want to share her dead relative's work with anyone? Whatever the reason, my professor had to scrap the project and the literary world is now one work poorer. I hope things don't turn out the same way for Abby, because the last thing we need is to be deprived of a good book.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON COPYRIGHT SEARCHES
Copyright Office Basics: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.html
This useful website provides a great deal of useful information on copyright--it's sort of like a copyright primer. There are lots of hyperlinks throughout that provide even further explanations and information.