Countries with longer copyright terms have access to fewer books (pay attention, Canada!)

Rebecca Giblin (previously) writes, "We've just dropped a new study we've been working on for a year. You know how it keeps being claimed that we need longer copyrights because nobody will invest in making works available if they're in the public domain? Heald and some others have done some great work debunking that in the US context, but now we've finally tested this hypothesis in other countries by looking at the relative availability of ebooks to libraries. It's also the first time anyone has been able to compare availability of identical works (by significant authors) across jurisdictions. The books we sampled were all in the public domain in Canada and NZ, all under copyright in Australia, and a mix in the US (courtesy of its historical renewal system)."

"So what'd we find? That Canada and NZ (public domain) have access to more books and at cheaper prices than Australia (copyright) and the US (mixed). Also that publishers don't seem to have any problem competing with each other on the same popular titles. And, sadly but not surprisingly: 59% of our sampled 'culturally significant' authors had no books available to libraries in any country regardless of copyright status. That's because even the shortest terms wildly outlast most books' commercial life (even where they still have cultural value).

"I think this new work is going to be important feeding into the next stage of the Canadian reform process in particular. I'm hopeful the Canadians will think very carefully about the ownership of that additional 20 years of rights they've been forced to give up (we talk about this on the final page)."

There can be no doubt that radical action is needed to address copyright’s ongoing failures to secure a fair share of economic rewards to authors and promote widespread access to knowledge and culture. But it is increasingly clear that longer terms are not the answer, and indeed contribute to the problem. If it simply tacks another 20 years onto its term, Canada can expect its libraries to have worse access, while doing little or nothing to increase payments into author pockets. So what are the options for countries obliged to adopt unjustifiable terms extensions as a condition of accessing trade markets? One promising line of approach is to rethink the ways in which those extended rights are divided up. In ‘A New Copyright Bargain? Reclaiming Lost Culture and Getting Authors Paid’, Giblin recently drew up a roadmap for an alternative copyright bargain. By introducing new reversion rights for authors, combined with safeguards against orphaning, she argues that it is possible to maintain incentives for creation and distribution, reclaim currently-lost culture, and secure to creators a fairer share —all while remaining consistent with treaty obligations. Faced with new evidence about the costs of current approaches,it may be time for nations which are locked in to costly and counter-productive copyright structures to similarly explore the ‘wriggle room’ left to them by treaties.

What Happens When Books Enter the Public Domain? Testing Copyright’s Underuse Hypothesis Across Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada [Jacob Flynn, Rebecca Giblin and François Petitjean/University of New South Wales Law Journal]