I was reminded recently about an exception tucked away in the Copyright Act 1956 Section 7 which permits the making of a copy of an unpublished literary, dramatic or musical work “…with a view to publication”.You could be forgiven for supposing the 1956 Act entirely redundant but this particular measure is preserved by Schedule 1 paragraph 16 of the current Act (CDPA 1988).
The main conditions are that at the time at least 50 years have elapsed since the end of the year in which the author died and at least 100 years since the work was created. Also the work must be kept in a “…library, museum or other institution where…it is open to public inspection.”
This could be a way around the 2039 rule, which gives extended copyright protection to unpublished works, by allowing publication in certain specific cases. Section 7(7) of the 1956 Act goes on to confirm that publication of the whole or part of the unpublished work in these circumstances is not infringing.
A significant condition is added at 7(7)b: “Immediately before the new work was published, the identity of the owner of the copyright in the old work was not known to the publisher of the new work…” So in a way the exception only applies to “orphan works” although there is no explict demand for a diligent search (or even a not so diligent search).
My enquiry related to the letters of an artist who died in 1932, satisfying the 50 years test. The letters however were from the 1920s, which is too recent. In order to fulfil the conditions of the exception the unpublished work would need to be created no later than the first half of 1917.
On the other hand there could be many older unpublished literary, dramatic and musical works held by libraries, museums etc. where publication would be covered by the exception.