Now that books, thanks to print-on-demand, can remain in print in perpetuity, the right of authors to be able to reclaim their copyright has become even more important. Technology has turned a grant of rights, seen originally as temporary, lasting only until demand was satisfied, into a signing away of rights potentially in perpetuity. Now that a publisher can keep a book available without there being any inventory in existence anywhere, there is no longer any reason to declare a book out of print.

The procedure for getting your copyright back which was introduced in the Copyright Act of 1976 allowed authors to claim back rights in a window from 35 to 40 years after publication or registration. The law required rigid adherence to a set of regulations, and the Copyright Office now proposes to relax things especially around timing and “harmless errors”. A discussion of the changes may be found at The Federal Register.

The Passive Voice, reporting on The Authors Guild’s involvement, has a sensible take on all this.

Be it noted that just because your grandmother’s book is now just available in a print-on-demand manner, there is not an automatic gain in your claiming back the rights. If annual demand has gone down to single figures, what advantage is there for you in claiming back rights? Do you want to become a publishing company on your own? The original publisher, the source for the book for 35 or more years will probably be able in any case to sell more copies than you can, and if the sale is in the single digits you’ll never get another publisher to want to take the book on. But if the book is selling in the hundreds each year, there might be some reason to go for it. Do bear in mind that as people have been used to getting the book from publisher A for so long, the chances are that publisher A will have an edge in the marketplace. But maybe you’ve proposed additions or revisions to the book and they’ve resisted — then another publisher might be a better bet. But be sure you get the new publisher to commit before you ditch the old one.