Copyright disappears books

Yesterday Cory shared this great piece on artists and authors whose work is re-entering the public domain. It reminded my friend Thom of this article in the Atlantic. A quick study showcases that copyright laws may have temporarily blanked out an entire period of American literature.

The above chart shows a distribution of 2500 newly printed fiction books selected at random from Amazon's warehouses. What's so crazy is that there are just as many from the last decade as from the decade between 1910 and 1920. Why? Because beginning in 1923, most titles are copyrighted.

The Missing 20th Century: How Copyright Protection Makes Books Vanish


    1. Copyright in the right dose (very limited time (not “one day short of eternity”) no bells and whistles) promotes culture.

      An overdose of copyright (too many restrictive terms, too long a protection period) is a poison.

      1. Copyright promotes culture the way that condoms promote procreation. Copyright is inherently a inhibition on the spread of culture. It might be perceived as a necessary evil in order to incentivize the creation of new works and provide a theoretical opportunity for an author (or their publishing company) to make a living off of their efforts, but don’t romanticize it by saying it promotes culture. Culture is a dialogue between multiple parties, none of whom can claim sole ownership or monopoly over it, not a one-way broadcast medium of a message for the sake of profit.

  1. The real questions that exist today are:

    * In a few years, books from 1923 will all enter the public domain (in 2018). Do we get an emergency copyright extension, like the Mickey Mouse/Sonny Bono Act to extend it further?

    * The millions of orphan works for which the rightsholders cannot be found, died without estate, etc.: when can those be freed? The US Copyright Office has a proposal that’s slowly advancing to protect rightsholders but also allow material that’s essentially unclaimed to become part of public knowledge.

    * Works out of copyright protection due to non-renewal between 1923 and 1963 aren’t in a gray state, but Google and many others treat them that way in an excess of caution. There are likely millions of works that fit into that category as well.

    1. “Do we get an emergency copyright extension, like the Mickey Mouse/Sonny Bono Act to extend it further?”

      Only if yet another Californian member of Congress files a bill to do it. It’s probably, but neither the proposition of this bill nor its passage should be taken as a given. We still live in a democratic republic, dammit. 

    2. Two simple fixes…

      1. Any work which is not available for sale for a period of more than 2 years shall immediately enter the public domain.

      2. All copyrights must be registered, and contact information shall be updated yearly by the creator of the work on the Library of Congress copyright register or it shall become public domain.

      This would take care of removing works from the market to increase their value (Disney), and deal with the issue of orphan works. The copyright register would identify works that no longer have any commercial value, and give a single stop place to go to find out information about licensing said work.

  2. This graph is great because it shows the actual commercial value of copyright protection in terms of length.

    For the first 10 years, copyright is obviously extremely valuable.

    For the next 10 years–somewhat valuable.

    After that first 20 years–definitely not valuable at all for that vast, vast majority of works.

    This is our marketplace telling us plain as day what the copyright term should be–somewhere between 10 and 20 years.

    1. I’d argue against the interpretation. First, massively more books are being published now as ebooks and in short-run print. When I was at Amazon in 1996 (as catalog manager), we saw about 250,000 new titles a year published in the US. That number is now north of 1,000,000.

      Older books used to not be kept in print, either, if they didn’t sell after a short time to free up warehouse space. In older contracts, a book was “out of print” when it earned no royalties for a time or other similar parameters. The rights then reverted to authors on request, many of whom would reclaim them out of general principle (especially if they had good agents).

      Newer contracts make out of print status impossible. If a book remains commercially for sale in any medium and sells like 1 copy a year or something, it’s in print.

      Also, publishers didn’t have “born digital” editions of books until the 1990s, and we still saw publishers (and still see) having books typed in to make ebook versions or sometimes scanned and OCR’d (to get figures and photos).

  3. Newer contracts make out of print status impossible. If a book remains commercially for sale in any medium and sells like 1 copy a year or something, it’s in print.

    So then, you’re making a great case for extended copyright protection all the way out to 20 years rather than the 10 years that would have been more reasonable a few decades ago?

    Even with the factors you cite, large corporations don’t even have a lifetime commensurate with our current copyright lifetimes. (See ). Even if companies perfectly well intend to keep books ‘in print’ for as long as they’re selling even one copy a year, we’re still looking at less than 5% of companies even being in business 40 and 60 and 60 years out.

    I wouldn’t be terribly opposed to a scheme where that 1% or 0.1% of companies and/or of authors who still have a viable financial property decades and decades out from original publication could apply for a copyright extension every 10 years or so and keep it going indefinitely for all I care.

    But let the 99.9% of material that has no particular commercial value go into the public domain where it belongs.

    The idea that something selling 1 copy per year needs copyright protection (from what?) isn’t a strong argument for hugely long copyright terms. What in the world does that kind of work even need copyright protection for? Certainly not to protect it’s huge economic value . . .

    Rather, the 1-copy-per-year book is the poster child for exactly how useless that super-long-term copyright protection is for both society and large and for the vast, vast majority of copyrighted works and authors, even today.

  4. Newer contracts make out of print status impossible. If a book remains commercially for sale in any medium and sells like 1 copy a year or something, it’s in print.

    And that may be true today but where then are the books, music, etc, from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s?

    You can see from the graph that those items have just disappeared into the dustbin of history–along with almost all items from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s as well.

    All those creative works, decades worth of them, have just gone down the memory hole because it’s not viable (or in many cases where copyright holders can’t be tracked down, even possible) to do anything with them while their decades overextended copyright monopoly is still in force.

    I mean, it’s nice to argue about what you think is going to happen over the next 90 years and all, but looking at that graph it is plain as day what copyright monopoly protection has actually done to our cultural legacy of the past 90 years.

    I mean, are the works of the 1910s actually 10X better and by nature 10X more popular than similar works of the 1930s and 40s?

    We’re quite literally looking at a 10X difference of distribution of works from the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s vs the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

    There is no other explanation than that the copyright monopoly, when over-extended as it clearly is right now, destroys our cultural history en masse.

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