Yesterday, the folks in charge of the Dr. Seuss catalogue decided they’ll no longer be publishing six of his books. These works generally have some archaic depictions of other cultures, and in some cases there’s stuff that’s genuinely shocking to modern racial sensibilities. (I’m looking at you, If I Ran the Zoo.)
Not every kids’ book from 1950 is worth reading to children today, and you can debate where publishers — and parents — should draw the line. But you can also debate how copyright should work when an author has been dead 30 years, the work came out more than half a century ago, and the copyright owners have decided not to publish it anymore.
Books copyrighted between 1923 and 1978 are covered for 95 years (so long as the protection was renewed after 28 years). Books copyrighted today are covered for the life of the author plus 70 years. I’m a big fan of copyright, and I don’t think authors should live to see their works used without their permission. But the post-death terms could certainly be shortened, or protection could be forfeited for out-of-print works with dead authors.
I don’t think it would be a bad outcome if other publishers were free to take over these works — and to remove the offensive bits, or not, as they saw fit.
You can read an interesting academic article about copyright and “disappearing works” here.