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Does Copyright Make Books Disappear?

By Dennis Abrams

copyrightWriting for The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen examined research done by Paul J. Heald at the University of Illinois and notes that “A book published during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur has a great chance of being in print today than one published during the time of Reagan.”

Rosen wrote last year about Heald’s preliminary research, and the numbers, she said, were startling. “There were as many books available from the 1910s as there were from the 2000s. The number of books from the 1850s was double the number available from the 1950s. Why? Copyright protections (which cover titles published in 1923 and after) had squashed the market for books from the middle of the 20th century, keeping those titles off shelves and out of the hands of the reading public.”

And now with his research completed, the picture remains the same. “Copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability,” Heald wrote. “Shortly after works are created and proprietized, they tend to disappear from public view only to reappear in significantly increased numbers when they fall into the public domain and lose their owners.”

The numbers speak for themselves: There are substantially more new editions available of books from the 1910s then from the 2000s. “Editions of books that fall under copyright are available in about the same quantities as those from the first half of the 19th century. Publishers are simply not publishing copyrighted titles unless they are very recent,” says Rosen.

Heald writes, “This is not a gently sloping downward curve! Publishers seem unwilling to sell their books on Amazon for more than a few years after their initial publication. The data suggests that publishing business models make books disappear fairly shortly after their publication and long before they are scheduled to fall into the public domain. Copyright law then deters their reappearance as long as they are owned.”

In addition, Heald pointed out that research shows that while there eight times as many books published in the 1980s as in the 1880s, roughly the same number of titles from both decades are available on Amazon.

Rosen concludes by saying “Copyright advocates have long (and successfully) argued that keeping books copyrighted assures that owners can make a profit off their intellectual property, and that the profit incentive will ‘assure [the] book’s] availability and adequate distribution.” One can make the case, though, that the evidence shows otherwise.

Read the entire report here.

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  1. Thalia
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    This is a bit of a silly argument. Out of copyright books are published en masse by publishers who specialize in them and only publish them because they can do so for free without paying an author. Many of them are only available as ebooks or POD. If copyright terms were reduced, then sure, more recent books would be published by the same people. So what? How does that affect the argument that authors should have the opportunity to be paid for their work if the demand is there for someone to reissue it (rather than the book just being automatically scavenged by the out of copyright brigade)?

  2. Dan Meadows
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I think the point here is that the term of copyright is too long. After the initial publication, the vast majority of books disappear for the rest of its copyright term, which is now over a century. Copyright does exactly what it was designed to do, give creators a short time to profit from the work. The rest of that time, publishers are basically squatting on those rights on the rare chance it has a resurgence of interest in the next 80 years or so. That’s not what was intended from copyright and its having the exact opposite effect from what they claim, making books unavailable. Remember, copyright isn’t simply to benefit creators but also the public and the progress of the arts. That progress is being impeded by the over-long term of copyright, as this study shows.

  3. Mark Davis
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Yep, it’s those damned pesky authors, wanting to be paid for their work, who are keeping books out of the hands of readers.

  4. Posted August 2, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I think demand needs to be taken into account. POD publishers can make any public-domain text available–but who wants these books? As a result of years of working for a used-book dealer, I can state that there are very few books people want that cannot be obtained.

  5. Sandy Thatcher
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Rosen apparently hasn’t heard that correlation doesn’t prove causation. The explanation for his findings has nothing to do with copyright; it has to do with the simple facts of printing technology until very recently. Given how offset printing worked, no publisher could afford to keep a book in print that wasn’t selling hundreds of copies every year because it was not economical to do a reprint of under 1,000 copies. So, publishers let most books go out of print after a few years, often reverting the copyright to the author. But when digital printing came along and made POD (print on demand) feasible, the “long tail” of publishing emerged and overnight publishers began keeping books in print indefinitely, since copies could be printed one at a time and no inventory was required. If Mr. Rosen repeats his study in twenty years, I’m sure he would find that many more books published in recent years are still available than ever before–and, meanwhile, copyright law will largely remain the same.

  6. Posted August 3, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    To say that books kept off Amazon disappear from the market is disingenuous. The books are sold everywhere else. This is something which everyone else seems to forget. While it’s true that copyright continues to protect the rights of authors, there is a point beyond which a copyright can be extended beyond the author’s death. It is proven in the estates of various authors whose families continue to enjoy the right to collect royalties from their parent/relative’s death until the copyright expires, and there is no legal barrier to their extending the copyright indefinitely. Amazon is not the arbiter of the shelf life of a book and I wish people would stop looking at Amazon as the barometer for the story’s survival.

  7. Powell jackson
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I myself will copyright everything I publish. I like many writers spend hour after hour setting in front of a key board writing, and revising. I do not make any money until the work is published and sold, and when it is I damn sure want the royalty payment to hit the bank.

  8. Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    When authors give up their copyrights to publishers in exchange for publication, then the economics of printing and inventory handling cut the life of a book short. In today’s digital world, ebooks and POD books can have an indefinite shelf life because no inventories are involved and marketing no longer depends on old mass marketing hype that used to, amd still does, sell some books. So to say copyrights make books disappear is just wrong. Giving up copyrights to publishers makes books disappear.

  9. Katherine McGuire
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Why on earth are the study’s authors conflating “available” with “for sale on Amazon”? Have they never heard of a library, private bookshelf, or bookshop that stocks titles both old anew new?

    Furthermore, who wants a political roman à clef from the Carter era, an instruction manual for the Apple II, or a 1965 guide to stock market investment strategies? It’s just fine for some books to go out of print.

  10. Katherine McGuire
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    …er, “titles both old and new.”

    Mea culpa.

  11. Posted December 21, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    This is one of interesting discussion, i think that copyright doesn’t make books disappear because it is protected by the law. Anyway nice article. Keep posting.

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