Last Friday's Times carried a letter from Professor J.A.L. Sterling, who is involved with the Intellectual Property Research Institute at the University of London.
The Prof makes the point that many unpublished works by long-dead writers are still in copyright -- even though their published stuff is out of copyright. Since the guy is dead, obtaining permission to use or print such works may be difficult if not impossible. (I have certainly found this to be true in relation to photographers; in many instances it is literally impossible to trace their heirs and successors.) Furthermore, the law of copyright will vary from country to country, so that the person who is entitled to give permission for use in one country may not be the person entitled to do so in another country. What fun!
'In the digital era,' says the Prof, 'international copyright becomes an Augean stable requiring a jurisprudential Hercules to bring order out of chaos.'
Well, at least one group of people are trying to improve the situation somewhat. Over on the Creative Commons blog, Lawrence Lessig provides part two of a description of an initiative which will be 'critical to the ecology of creativity generally.' It's not easy stuff to get your head round, but it is clearly vital.