Go to the Library of Congress catalogue. It is online at http://catalog.loc.gov/. This is an astounding repository of material—not just books and periodicals, but pictures, films, and music. The vast majority of this material, perhaps as much as 95 percent in the case of books, is commercially unavailable. The process happens comparatively quickly. Estimates suggest that a mere twenty-eight years after publication 85 percent of the works are no longer being commercially produced. (We know that when U.S. copyright required renewal after twenty-eight years, about 85 percent of all copyright holders did not bother to renew. This is a reasonable, if rough, guide to commercial viability.
Yet because the copyright term is now so long, in many cases extending well over a century, most of twentieth-century culture is still under copyright— copyrighted but unavailable. Much of this, in other words, is lost culture. No one is reprinting the books, screening the films, or playing the songs. No one is allowed to. In fact, we may not even know who holds the copyright. Companies have gone out of business. Records are incomplete or absent. In some cases, it is even more complicated. A film, for example, might have one copyright over the sound track, another over the movie footage, and another over the script. You get the idea. These works—which are commercially unavailable and also have no identifiable copyright holder—are called “orphan works.”
They make up a huge percentage of our great libraries’ holdings. For example, scholars estimate that the majority of our film holdings are orphan works. For books, the estimates are similar. Not only are these works unavailable commercially, there is simply no way to find and contact the person who could agree to give permission to digitize the work or make it available in a new form…