Does Copyright Make Books Disappear?

In News Blog by Dennis Abrams

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.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for children's publishing and media. He's also the author of more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers, a restaurant critic, and a literary blogger.