A must-read article by Severo Ornstein, son and devoted editor of the composer Leo Ornstein, has some particularly clear illustrations of the how disfunctional traditional music publishing can get. In Ornstein's case, former-global-media-behemoth-now-fragile-subsidiary-of-Citigroup EMI apparently earns license fees for works it has never actually published, and EMI's refusal to communicate and the understood threat of unmatchable legal power keep them from even entering into a dialogue to do what is most reasonable for the music itself. And of course, Ornstein's rights organization, BMI, lacks the human resources to support the Ornstein family in sorting their side of this out. Any reasonable person will recognize that Ornstein's catalog is never going to earn meaning royalties for EMI, but the huge size of their catalog and their massively downsized staff probably make it impossible for EMI to afford the labor required to look into the matter. What is required for cases like this is some legislation freeing up works effectively orphaned by negligent publishers, either returning full rights to the works in cases where there are heirs willing to assert their rights and promote the work as Severo Ornstein has so admirably done in his father's behalf, or automatically releasing orphaned and unclaimed works irrevocably into the public domain. But I suspect that any hopes for such a reasonable treatment of creative work are hopelessly optimistic.
[Let me also note that my small publishing project, Material Press, has recently begun, with pieces by Jerry Hunt and Barney Childs, to publish orphaned landmarks of the avant garde. Any other suggestions for this project are more than welcome.]