One of the mind-boggling facts about the Google book deal is the number of so-called “orphan works” there are. According to Brewster Kahle, most books published since our current copyright regime was adopted in 1923 are orphan works:
But the settlement would also create a class that includes millions of people who will never come forward. For the majority of books — considered “orphan” works — no one will claim ownership. The author may have died; the publisher might have gone out of business or doesn’t respond to inquiries; the original contract has disappeared.
Google would get an explicit, perpetual license to scan and sell access to these in-copyright but out-of-print orphans, which make up an estimated 50 to 70 percent of books published after 1923. No other provider of digital books would enjoy the same legal protection. The settlement also creates a Book Rights Registry that, in conjunction with Google, would set prices for all commercial terms associated with digital books.
For the archivist who makes money by advertising and resale, orphan works are uniquely convenient: not only do you not have to obtain permission to republish, you also don’t have to share revenues with anyone. Taken together, those facts certainly don’t motivate digital book sellers to expend any effort to find the authors or their heirs.
Now imagine how this would change if someone developed a tool for searching the Internet. Surely the information is out there on most published authors, their heirs, and their whereabouts, so as long as someone is diligent enough to sift through it, evaluate it, and interpret it, they can be found. I wonder how long it will be until a bright young pair of graduate students in the computer science program of a major university set themselves to solve the problem of Internet search.
Not to be sarcastic or anything.