Our discussion has brought up a queston for me that I hope you might take time to answer.
In the 1920s, James G. Randall wrote a book called "Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln". He later revised it in 1951 a couple of years before he died. As Randall and his wife, Ruth, had no children, they had no direct heirs to leave their literary estate. Instead, David Herbert Donald, who was one of Randall's graduate students, became his literary executor.
My question is this...if I want to bring out a new edition of CPUL, I realize I would have to get Donald's permisson. However, what happens once Donald passes away? Does he have the legal right to assign a new literary executor or does that duty pass away with him? My understanding (very sketchy) of literary executors is that they are conservators of the work, not the owners of the content. If I want to write a biography of Randall (which someday I do), currently I have to have Donald's permission to look at Randall's papers which are deposited at the University of Illinois. Will that change once Donald passes away?
I would appreciate any insight you might have, and also if you could direct me to any books on the subject, I would appreciate it.
The literary executor may be a formally or informally appointed position and it could even be more than one party (with and without accounting to the other parties). But the issue points out the importance of wills. Because if one is not appointed at all, the right to copy the work is lost to everyone until the expiration of the copyright. As a result, Donald should (probably does) have a will appointing a new custodian for Randall's and his works. The copyright doesn't end with the death of the formal custodians/owners. Of course someone could claim they were the custodian and present their claim to a court of competent jurisdiction as the rightful custodian but that might set off a huge fight between claimants and no one gets to publish until the court case is resolved. Of course practically speaking, if there is no custodian and no one cares, who will stop you? But then if you hit it big with your reprint the "custodians" might come out of the woodwork wanting a piece or all of the profits. As we both know, this is America and you can sue anybody for anything. Some of the details of this law also vary by state but the above is generally how it is done in the US.
Copyright is not my area of expertise, I'm more into patents and software licensing but there are plenty of nice dry law books to recommend but one I've heard about that is probably more up your alley is Stephen Fishman's Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know its pricy but its written for writers, not lawyers and it is supposed to be pretty comprehensive without making your eyes glaze over too bad with legalese.