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Infinite Copyright Is Killing Culture (slate.com)
266 points by guelo 1911 days ago | hide | past | web | 95 comments | favorite

My explanation of the graph:

When a new book comes out it receives marketing and promotion and will sell for a few years. Then the book enters the dead zone where it will be slowly forgotten over a couple decades but it is not able to enter the public domain anymore because copyright protection continues to be extended to protect Disney's movies from the 1920s.

Since most of the books in the dead zone are not reprinted by the publishers they are inaccessible except via rummaging through the used book market.

Completely agree as a friend of mine said: "I wouod rather have a law that shortens copyright terms to at least the death of the author. and that law has an exception just for Disney..." (ben litton)

Ending the copyright of a work at the death of the author without any minimum would have significant problems. People who are old or ill would not get book deals (or at least not good ones) because what publisher would want to take the risk? And, they might not bother self-publishing either, since their children could not benefit if they die soon.

How about 20 years after publication? That would give Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone another 5 years. I'm sure JKR could live with that. CJR Tolkien would have to live off the savings of the Tolkien estate, and takings from his own works (The Silmarillion, which he finished off and published over 20 years ago, and some other more recent publications based on JRR's unfinished work).

Less popular authors wouldn't make enough, but they don't make enough regardless. There's very few books which make any real money 20 years after publication, as the chart shows.

The downside would be the moral rights of authors. Some authors are a bit tetchy about their characters being used by other authors. JKR is reputedly pretty cool with fan fiction (she knows her fans will just buy more of her stuff), but some authors would be a bit offended at their characters being used in slashfic, or whatever other weird use people could think of.

On the upside, educators could use it. Sure, there's "fair use", but it's too badly defined to get a definite sense of what "fair" is (for good reasons - a narrow definition would encourage people to abuse it). Teachers and textbook publishers are too stingy to hire copyright lawyers or buy rights, so they just use stuff that's clearly in the public domain. Want to know why textbooks are boring? The lack of public domain materials is one reason (others are listed here: http://www.edutopia.org/textbook-publishing-controversy)

I saw a comment on a similar thread about a month ago suggesting a recurring annual cost for renewing copyright. The formula for the cost would be similar to 2^n-1, where n is the number of years the work has been under copyright.

This would allow popular and profitable works to stay under copyright longer, while allowing less profitable works to enter the public domain sooner.

One problem with requiring people to renew their copyright is that a lot of people will simply forget. There are people who produce hundreds of little pieces every year, each of which generates little revenue on its own. Should they renew their copyright on each and every work at the end of every year? Currently, their works are automatically copyrighted, even if they don't put up a copyright notice.

I think you should wait X years (where X is around 10-20) before that formula kicks in.

I'd be amenable to that.

It would also allow orphaned works (works where the copyright owner cannot be identified or located) to slip into the public domain.

The old UK system was the longer of 42 years after publication, or 7 years after the death of the author.

The actual numbers might not be perfect, but this kind of system (possibly with different numbers) would eradicate the downside you mention.

It might be appropriate for different types of work to enjoy different copyright terms. You are probably right in saying that 20 years is long enough for a book, but music might last longer due to covers, remixes etc.

It might be also appropriate to have different events occurring after different terms, rather than simply shifting from owned to public domain overnight - e.g.

Up to 30 years: A copyright holder is pretty much god, save for any parody/fair use etc. clauses.

After 30 years: A copyright holder is bound to accede to "reasonable requests", and cannot place unreasonable conditions or fees on use.

After 50 years: Must be properly attributed, but otherwise it is uncontrolled.

After 100 years: Completely public domain, and you can do what you want;

Covers and remixes are no different than derivative works of books, plays or film. Copyright should be universally applied to all creative works.

That said I do like the idea of a potentially staggered coverage. Perhaps 0-X: monopoly. X-Y: compulsory licensing. Y+: attribution

Particularly because music already enjoys compulsory licensing and it seems to work fine. And attribution seems like the right thing to do, regardless of the age of the work.

I don't mean to claim that covers and remixes are any different, merely that the practice is quite prevalent, meaning that tunes penned by various artists 20-50 years ago are still being heard in the charts today, spurring a resurgence in interest in the original.

The same can only be said of a small handful of authors, whose older books lend their names, and occasionally their stories to new films.

I also agree that attribution is right regardless of age; but over time, without a central rights management authority, it could be difficult to assign proper attribution, leading to the potential for copyright trolling akin to the kind of patent trolling we see today. Perhaps instead of expiry, there should be a time immemorial for copyright.

Most of the systems were reasonable. But when they started making treaties, they seemed to adopt the maximal terms from all the signatories.

> The downside would be the moral rights of authors.

That isn't worth restricting everyone else's free speech.

> but some authors would be a bit offended at their characters being used in slashfic, or whatever other weird use people could think of.

And copyright law effectively prevents this how? (Key word there is effectively.)

Which is a good explanation for why tying copyright to the life of the author at all is extremely stupid. Why not just make it 30 years?

Honestly, how many people would that be? How many great works were produced by old folks starting for the first time?

They don't have to start for the first time. Who's going to publish the next Stephen King book when he's old, since someone can just take it and republish it without paying a dime right when he dies?

That's a pretty classic calculation, yeah?

Stephen King books are bestsellers, generally, even if only for a few years. Especially when distributed digitally, it becomes no great burden to make hay for the final years of the author's life.

I was addressing the claim that no publisher would touch an old novelist because they might die--that makes no sense in the case of established, well-selling authors, and makes no difference in the case of most first-time geriatric novelists.

Hmm, I'm not sure I understand your argument. If I'm a publisher, I wouldn't want to pay King millions for the rights to his latest novel when someone can come out tomorrow, republish it (legally) for free and make that investment vanish.

I think the point is that Kings book would probably pay for itself very quickly, so the risk of him dying before that might not be so bad.

Not a legal genius here but with work for hire arrangements, wouldn't Disney the corporation be considered the author thus giving them what they want?

I actually don't understand why the so-called Mickey Mouse copyright extensions aren't treated on a case-by-case basis or at least don't require renewal say every 20 years so truly orphaned works can do what they're meant to and go into the public domain.

That being said, patents have time limits. Why do copyright holders feel like they have the right to profit in perpetuity? It seems inconsistent and not in the public interest but I don't need Mickey Mouse to be in the public domain. Orphaned works however should become so.

I don't think the big copyright holder view it in terms of rights or public interest. They have a financial interest, and they act to preserve and extend that. That's not surprising. One of the major problems, perhaps the largest problem, is that such players have a disproportionate voice with legislators. The advocates on the other side are few and relatively disorganized, and the common voter really doesn't care.

Even without cynicism about politicians being bought, it's a matter of which side of the argument makes a more compelling case. I think the big stakeholders do a better job at this.

How does the common voter vote against it?

Democrats; Supported by Hollywood.

Republicans; Supported by big companies.

That's the problem with party-driven politics; the limited scope of which issues decide elections. Copyright is never a frontline issue during elections because there are always bigger problems. In effect, democracy doesn't apply to copyright legislation because the majority doesn't let IP decide their vote.

It's not at all a problem with party-driven politics. The problem is that the government and the parliaments in the US don't accurately represent the people.

That's a problem with a broken democracy. In Europe you don't have that problem, at least not to such an extreme extend.

You have to understand that the IP industry sees public domain content as competition, they want to restrict the amount of stuff in the public domain as much as possible.

Also, if people get used to things being in the public domain, they might start to question how much sense it makes to have the government go around granting monopolies (copyright and patents).

It seems inconsistent and not in the public interest but I don't need Mickey Mouse to be in the public domain

Honestly, I agree with you. I suspect it is in part because at this point Mickey Mouse is practically Disney's logo, and we certainly don't expire other company's rights to their logos.

Logos fall under trademark law. Will it really hurt Disney's brand if someone else is selling DVDs of Steamboat Willie?

In that case Mickey Mouse is already protected as a trademark. The real question isn't if Mickey is protected, but if Steamboat Willie is protected from now until the end of time.

Who cares about Steamboat Willie, or Disney for that matter?

I care about that there will be little to no public domain between now and when I die. And I don't care about X popular work of the hour; I care about the myriads of media that have been orphaned.

Disney and its ilk can afford archiving services, and do as such. Many studios, authors, musicians and such may either have a copy or perhaps even lost it (thinking of Prince of Persia source recently found). Do we just let all but the most popular die in the annals of recorded-but-forgotten history.

DRM is just another chapter, in which the Twilights, Titanics, and Harry Potters are recorded unencrypted, but the minor films and media are forgotten.

*edited for grammar

The original copyright act in the US granted protection for 14 years with an option for 14 year renewal. I think society would be much better served if we went back to that.

If the goal is to ensure creatives can make a living at creating things that are trivial to copy, 14 years may be too short. And registering for renewals strikes me as an unnecessary fig leaf to entrenched publishers (who else would have the money or inclination to register and pay for such?).

25 years seems fair.

What could you possibly create that will take you more than 14 years to earn back that would only be protected by copyright?

Consider that "A Game of Thrones" was published 16 years ago, but its sales only really started taking off last year. I feel like it would be a shame if George R. R. Martin, who is still alive and writing the series, was getting absolutely nothing from this surge of interest.

Some creative works simply take a while to get going in the culture. I don't think we should punish creative folks who are, for lack of a better term, "ahead of their time." Obviously this concept could be taken to an absurd extreme, but I would argue that 25 years is better than 14. It's at least closer to the duration of a full human generation.

He could still be selling paperback versions, or he could have licensed the franchise (which he should have a trademark on) to HBO for the tv series. He would still have control of the brand name of A Game of Thrones, if his copyright on it expired it would just mean anyone who owns the first book could reproduce and sell it themselves, and anyone who wants to make a derivative work could do so.

But they would not necessarily be able to use the name "Game of Thrones" in the title, because thats a trademark. As long as he is alive he has that name available to him to distribute as he wishes.

I feel 5 year copyright + ability to renew it once for a total 10 year duration is plenty of time for government sponsored monopoly on distribution and derivation. Because that is all copyright is. But thanks to that system, almost any fan made Star Wars work is technically violating George Lucas' copyright on everything in the universe he made, and he could realistically sue a truckload of fan sites.

And you can't guarantee fair use saving them. It is intentionally vague, and it just takes one bad judge's ruling to change precedent (even at the Supreme Court level).

The word mark "Game of Thrones" is owned by HBO, not George R.R. Martin.

I'm not going to argue too strenuously for any particular number, so long as your proposed number is lower than "70 years ranging upward to infinity" - don't look a fantasy gift horse in the mouth, right? - but I'll just point out that even if "A Game of Thrones" were magically out of copyright today, Martin would still be benefiting from the surge of interest. The interest would sell the sequels that were still under copyright. It would sell the sequels that have yet to be written.

It isn't even obvious that Martin himself wouldn't benefit from the additional publicity of giving his earliest books away for free, then selling the sequels. Though I doubt it in this particular case, because of the whole HBO-series angle: presumably Martin is collecting royalties on the TV show, and collected option payments even before the show was made, and if the original book was out of copyright HBO needn't have paid these fees. But the works that are in peril aren't the ones that get optioned for movies and TV: Adapted works stay in print, if only as a form of tie-in merchandise for the show.

If A Game of Thrones were out of copyright, he wouldn't be collecting royalties on the adaptations -- unless he made such an agreement while it was still under copyright.

One side effect of making copyright terms short, as is being discussed, is that studios could freely make movies (video games, etc.) based on all but the most recent works without seeking approval or paying royalties.

And if HBO's adaptation of A Game of Thrones was popular but was relatively inaccessible since most people don't have an HBO subscription, any random person could make their own adaptation of the book and sell it cheaply and widely.

I'm not convinced I understand the full implications of this enough to make a definitive statement about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, but it's definitely something that should be considered carefully.

The problem is that the copyright clock starts ticking the moment you've fixed an expression, not from any registration or publishing date. So a creation that is largely done but is being shopped around to publishers, or sitting in a drawer collecting small tweaks and edits is losing its monopoly.

And if you erode much off 14 years, it starts to sound unnecessarily short.

Just ask any writer, comedian or musician how long their original creations were kicking around before they got anyone interested in paying them for it. Several years is common for their pre-discovery work.

Copyright was setup by the people to give incentive to create new works for the people. If you can rest on the work you did decades ago, there leaves no reason to continue with the arts†, which goes against the whole spirit of copyright in the first place.

† Assuming profit is the driving motivator, as copyright does.

I think you're putting too much emphasis on trying to maximize output from each individual creator. When, in every case I've ever heard or read of, creators already go as fast as they can (provided they can afford to live off their creations). And, further, despite those efforts very few find subsequent success.

So worrying that creators might sit by the proverbial poolside instead of creating new works seems silly to me and completely at odds with reality, even under our current copyright regime where copyright is effectively perpetual.

What I take into consideration when thinking about copyright terms, is trying to balance a reasonable time from which a creator can make a living off their work (given what we know about how creation happens), against a reasonable time before which others can try to make their living from that work.

As that is also what the public domain is about: freeing up old works for others to extend, adapt and interpret in their own attempt to make a living.

And along those lines, it's worth recognizing that there's a very real risk to the rate of 'new' creation that would come from shorter copyright terms. Should Mickey Mouse fall out of copyright, wouldn't the corporate incentive be to put Mickey Mouse into every children's work? (Particularly given the state of our risk-averse creative industries.)

The 'new' works we got might well start looking even more familiar than they do today.

> So worrying that creators might sit by the proverbial poolside instead of creating new works seems silly to me and completely at odds with reality...

It seems equally silly to worry about squeezing every ounce of profitability out of every work of art that we can think of, and for every edge case.

Artists will keep creating whether copyright is infinite or only 14 years. Maybe 22.7 years is optimal, but this is a boring discussion to have

> balance a reasonable time from which a creator can make a living off their work (given what we know about how creation happens), against a reasonable time before which others can try to make their living from that work.

Perhaps shift the perspective a little. What is reasonable time period for which others should be prevented from producing new work derived from the original? The problem I have is that copyright is at conflict with what we all know to be reality: most art is a product of our shared culture and only partly original. Copyright actually blocks the natural evolution of ideas and prevents society from benefiting from significant derived works.

Just change it to "The moment the work is displayed, published, performed, or otherwise exhibited in a public venue under authorization from the creator" or whatever the equivalent legalese is.

If copyright doesn't begin until exhibition, then the outright theft of private works is legalized. [1] You'll have reintroduced the problems that implicit copyright existing at the moment of creation was intended to solve.

So to fix that, we can then either recognize the right of the author prior to publishing/exhibition with more complicated rules, or simply extend the term a little and maintain simplicity.

[1] Joe writes a book. He shows it to Bob for notes. Bob publishes it under his own name. The copyright would belong to Bob.

There is a sane middle ground. Copyright is granted upon creation, but infringement can only be pursued in cases where theft (or strongly probably) theft can be shown. Someone you don't know has the same idea? Tough cookies, you should have published. After public unveiling (registration, publication, etc), the timer starts. This puts some onus on the creator to not spread his work around willy-nilly, but allows him to shop publishers etc.

Several years would still give you nine or ten under copyright.

Anyways, if you can't move product in a few years, you should be trying something new.

Hopefully this will be less of a problem going forward with ebooks but the internet is full of stories of writers with several profitable books published who ended up sitting on novels for years when the horror market collapsed, good well edited books that went on to be profitable when "Urban Fantasy" started selling.

Or just a case of publishers not wanting to publish more than X books a year from a given writer, regardless of output.

Those are books of course. Movie scripts are notorious for floating around Hollywood for years, sometimes decades.

Consider things like movie rights. It's not unusual for there to be a very long time lag between print publication and the release of a movie version (e.g., Watchmen or Hitchhiker's guide). I've always liked the idea of setting copyright to expire n years after the expiration of the copyright owner (where n is long enough to handle the "take care of my family when I die" and "don't disincentivize publishing stuff made by older people" issues). n = 20 is my arbitrary proposal. Copyright owned by deathless entities (corporations and such) maxes out at another arbitrary number (I like 40) and there are no options for renewals in either situation.

Conditional upon every book a publisher invests in being successful, yes, this would be okay. But you need to provide enough runway for publishers to earn enough profit on their successes to offset the losses. Otherwise you're reducing the returns on being a book publisher and implicitly discouraging publishing.

To me the bigger problem is that after a short period of time any successful work would be fair game for large corporations to exploit without compensation to the creator. So they just wait it out instead of dealing with the creator.

The original motivation for renewals I believe was that orphan works and abandoned/discontinued projects would lapse, since nobody would bother to renew them.

Which is a reasonable goal.

But I find such rules create little more than traps for the lone creator or industry outsider; someone who is already at massive disadvantage in the industry. Unnecessary bits of procedure are naught but hand-outs to those who have the time to professionally game the system.

And companies [1] are highly unlikely to pass on paying a nominal fee [2] when the potential return is so high.

[1] Only companies are likely to have orphan works that are even known to exist by anyone willing to appropriate them.

[2] The fee must necessarily be nominal, lest you again disadvantage the lone creator/outsider.

20-25 years might be fine, but I still wish there were stronger fair use laws, and that people are more easily allowed to remix someone's work. Think about how much more "fan-art" could be created around more creative works, which would serve both the author by increasing the popularity of the original work through both increased awareness and loyalty from the fans, and also the public by enhancing the culture around it.

I absolutely agree. In an ideal world, Fair Use should have been codified long ago, and a more-broad 'non-commercial' qualification added.

That said, given the state of lobbyists and legislation in the US, I sometimes feel that it's better for all of us that they aren't being given a shot at re-writing (and thus inevitably eroding) those rights.

Another thing we could do instead is index the copyright length to life expectancy. It was 14 years in 1790 (average expectancy was 35.5), which means it should be around 28 years today. It was meant to give creators a time-limited monopoly (presumably while they were actually alive); that length sounds about right to me for that.

Most of that difference in life expectancy is due to lowered infant mortality, they weren't copyrighting anything anyhow.

It really should be the life-span of the author plus some arbitrary amount, but the arbitrary part shouldn't be more than one generation.

It does society no good to have your grandchildren living off your legacy without an imperative to create their own.

My proposition(probably not original at all) is that we let Disney(and anyone else) extend copyright on thing it wants at an ever increasing (exponential) rate. If they have to pay they will make sure to only keep things under copyright that are still bringing them value.

Also, we need to move towards a registration based copyright system. This post doesn't need copyright protection.

Also, we need to move towards a registration based copyright system. This post doesn't need copyright protection.

This idea seems very wrong to me, for two reasons. First, you might not deem this particular comment of yours worthy of copyright protection, but people might find themselves in different situations. Consider for example the following Reddit comments, don't they deserve copyright protection?



Secondly, a registration based system puts unsophisticated creators at a disadvantage. People who don't have the resources to register all their creations or lack knowledge of the procedures will be penalized.

I would be happy to live in a copyright-free society[1], as it would not favor anyone. But a registration based system would shift the balance even more to the advantage of big corporations and copyright trolls.

[1] As long as some moral rights are preserved, e.g. one cannot take credit for someone else's work.

You must be young, and Not remember. Registration worked fine for majority of history, pre 1970, I believe thats when sono bono copyright act made copyright automatic.

In fact auto registration has shifted power towards the fewer.

Can you support these claims? Just because "it worked" doesn't mean it was better than the present system.

The upside of automatic copyright is clear: you don't have to bother registering every blog post you write if you want to prevent people from copy-pasting them.

The downside is less convincing: tons of material "unworthy" of copyright are automatically protected? Well, who cares if I cannot copy some HN comment...

That HN comment may have a historical significance you can't see now, but it will be lost because of automatic copyright. The most valuable historical material are the thoughts and experiences of "average people", because that's how we can truly understand an era. How will people in 500 years understand this era when it is likely that most of the popular culture and social commentary will be lost by then?

Twenty-two years ago I wrote a humor column for the college newspaper. A few years later (because of a scandal with the student government) they declared their independence and moved off-campus. A few years after that, they went bankrupt and shut down.

Who owns the copyright to the columns I wrote?

With a registration system, I could look that up. Now? I could republish the content and wait to get sued to figure out who owns it, but that's rather expensive.

You own the copyright. Unless of course you explicitly transferred it to the college newspaper, but then you would know.

This is a good example why a registration based system is bad: as a student you would likely not have bothered registering for copyright on your humor column, while in the present system you enjoy the protections and can republish as you like.

(If you had worked for a commercial newspaper, you would have created a work for hire and the newspaper would detain the copyright. I'm not sure what happens to copyright when the newspaper disappears but this is unrelated to copyright registration)

You could offer a grace period (lets say 1 year) to give time to people to register their post if they want. Same as with the reform to Patents which occurred last year.

This will still favor sophisticated creators/content owners.

I see the advantage of your system when coupled to an increasing price for maintaining registration (it would flatten the plot in the original submission). But I don't see the advantage over the solution of a short-term copyright: your system would basically keep out of the public domain important works that already benefited the content owners more than enough...

Well I feel it's a compromise, large corporation like Disney will never yield, what I'm trying to avoid is them causing other works that are no longer in print or distributed from disappearing. I want to give a disincentive to keep things under copyright for ever.

"your system would basically keep out of the public domain important works that already benefited the content owners more than enough." While true the exponential rise in cost in my proposition would lead to ensuring that these things will go into the public domain at some point. As it is now, extensions apply to everything including things for which no one cares for anymore.

Let's not ignore that the current system is also biased towards large corporations anyway. The cost of enforcing copyright is prohibitively high for small creators. I also suggest in a previous post to have a open databases showing registration (paid for by the registration fees) that would make it easier to find and contact creators to license their things.

That makes sense. If you make copyright automatic for a short period before switching to your registration system, I'm in.

It would still be a huge improvement over our current system, where the majority of works enter the copyright blackhole and become inaccessible because they are too old to be profitable yet too "new" to be in public domain.

I agree completely. First 14 years: free. Beyond that start raising the price. Registration only kicks in once you have to start paying...

That looks like a very reasonable compromise between short default terms and paid registration/extension.

The problem with a registration-based system is that the immediate logical reduction is to a git push hook that notifies the copyright office each time I push to a public project on GitHub. Nobody is prepared to build that server farm. And that's just for our industry; I can't imagine what kind of copyrightable data is produced on a daily basis in, say, engineering or science.

I'm on board with charging renewal fees for copyright, but you have to do it with a "five years after publication freebie" clause. I'm not going to file for protection on the 20 or so small projects I work on each year.

Keep in mind--lesser OSS projects will fall out of copyleft under this system, because now copylefters have the same fee structure that copyrighters do, but not the business model that goes with it. So, depending on your view of copyleft, this can be good or bad.

Copyrights are currently free. Under your system, you'd have to figure out how to decide what counts as a single "work" for setting prices.

Yeah that definition would have to be reviewed and I think the first ~10 years would should be free.

how about this...let them decide on the yearly value...and enforce licensing costs equal to X% of that value.

that way they won't want to set the value high to pay the fees...and not too low since then the licensing costs would be too low

Which would harm outsiders and new creators while giving an advantage to corporations that knew the rules and could afford to play the game.

Publishers would be only too willing to pay registration rates that independent creators could never afford. It would allow them to never pay original authors for their copyrights in favor of simply waiting them out and plucking the work out of the public domain once the creator had given up.

If you thought "work for hire" was bad today, imagine what it would look like if publishers all knew that independent creators were likely only a year or two away from not even having that copyright with which they currently negotiate.

I'd really like to see the source of the data and what exactly is being measured. The implication of the title is that these are new physical books. If that's the case, I guess I'm a bit skeptical.

I suppose it's possible that there are an outsize number of books published between about 100 and 150 years ago that get read for school and the like, which would account for that big spike. But these books are mostly not all that cheap just because they're in the public domain. And, presumably, the number of different titles still being read from that era is relatively small. And the top n% (where n is a small number) most popular titles from any era are mostly still in print, whether they're out of copyright or not.

Now, on the other hand, if this includes e-books, there's a pretty simple explanation. Many of the pre-copyright titles are available for free and very low cost and most of us with Kindles and Kindle apps have downloaded quite a few even if we haven't gotten around to reading all of them.

(I'm not arguing against shorter copyright terms by the way. But my personal experience is at odds with the suggestion that there are vast numbers of 20th century books that people would be reading in droves if only there were in print.)

"I'd really like to see the source of the data and what exactly is being measured."

Following the source link in Yglesias' post [1], the graph seems to come from a presentation that Paul Heald (a professor at the University of Illinois) [2] did at the University of Canterbury [3]. A video is available on YouTube; the graph in question (with a different title) seems to be available at the 12:50 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DpfZcftI00#t12m50s

[1]: http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/copyright-...

[2]: http://www.law.illinois.edu/faculty/profile/PaulHeald

[3]: http://www.econ.canterbury.ac.nz/research/seminar2012.shtml

Thanks. I missed the link.

I think the mistake may be in discounting the long tail: Even if the top n% are still in print, the bottom (100-n)% aren't. The volume from a million out-of-print old books that would each sell on average fifty copies a year can easily dwarf that of a few thousand in-print old books that each sell a thousand copies a year.

As for the e-book explanation, even if that turns out to be the case, isn't that an even stronger argument for shorter copyright terms? Now that public domain books are "free" you get a lot more public benefit out of something being in the public domain, because instead of the price going from $17 to $15 it goes from $17 to $0, which results in far more people getting access to the book.

If the million books are out of print, Amazon certainly can't sell them as physical copies. (OK, there's PoD but I can't see that skewing these numbers in a big way.) And even Gutenberg has "only" 36,000 e-books, which I assume corresponds pretty closely to all the available public domain works that have been converted to text. That's a big number but it's still a fairly small slice of all published books even allowing for the fact that the number of published books has gone up over time.

> As for the e-book explanation, even if that turns out to be the case, isn't that an even stronger argument for shorter copyright terms?

Sure, at least in principle. Insofar as copyright law is supposedly about balancing the public good with encouraging the creation of new works, making the good relatively more valuable (through wider distribution) once out of copyright would presumably change the balance point. As I said, I'm certainly not going argue for the current copyright regime.

Surely whether a book is under copyright or not has some effect on the publisher's decision to publish, the price at which it is published, and the consumer's choice to buy. You seem to be saying that there's no way these effects can be significant, because the top books will always sell and all other old books will never sell.

I don't think there's a clear dividing line between the "top books" and the rest. The line is fuzzy, and will shift in response to market pressures. For a random example: The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities was a rather influential book in economics. It is out of print and listed for over $100 used on Amazon. David Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy, which probably appeals to the same smallish group of econ geeks, is available in a reprint for $10.

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." -- Isaac Newton

I bet a lot of it could be mitigated by allowing works to pass into the public domain, but allow parties to keep the characters / settings under some type of trademark for new works.

I would say infinite sequels, reboots, and remakes are killing culture more than infinite copyright.

A very cool short story taking this topic to a strange and dystopian extreme is Melancholy Elephants:


When I stop to think about it, it seems strange to me that ownership of copyright is transferable at all. I suspect it comes from years of thinking of intellectual property as if it were physical property.

Just as a thought experiment: could a system where copyright isn't transferable but lasts until the death of the author work? Assuming a suitable definition of "death" which covers both individuals and companies, that is.

First, what exactly is the Y axis? Titles stocked or volumes stocked, and what is the order of magnitude?

Second, what is the effect complained of? That it costs too much to purchase books, movies, and music, or that one can't "read a version of Good-bye, Mr. Chips in which he protects his students from the werewolf menace as well as offering them solace through the Great War."

If the former, among the moderately prosperous of the developed countries, is this really having a large economic effect? Grabbing at random some non-tech stuff that happens to be in my office, I find, all in copyright: one novel at $15.95, one volume of humor ditto, one collection of essays on food at $12.95.

Second, if the cultural effect is the problem, just how grave is that problem? We do not seem to be thinking of Mozart and da Ponte overhauling Beaumarchais here.

Recommended reading on this subject: http://www.spiderrobinson.com/melancholyelephants.html

So, what happened during the 1990's and 2000's?

The data here is the number of books sold by Amazon, arranged by the decade they were published in.

So Amazon sells lots of contemporary books, and lots of pre-1922 public domain classics, but much fewer books published under copyright (since they are now basically locked away, virtually forgotten, and will not be republished).

Nothing unique. If Amazon had existed in the 70s and someone had gathered the same data, I'm sure you'd see the same shape.

In fact, the publishers and booksellers probably did gather that data, so it ought to be possible to check whether this is true or not.

Recent popularity? The graph basically says that copyrighted works older than 10-15 years are simply ignored. Public domain works, however, are almost as widespread as recent blockbusters.

I would posit the graph is showing the ephemeral popularity of books that either represent seminal landmarks in literature, philosophy, or other categories that lend themselves well to the written word OR republications of books from the public domain for use in the classroom. For instance, several courses I took in Uni required books like Plato's Republic and Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Works that are in the public domain but were republished more recently.

spider robinson's short story "melancholy elephants" is relevant here: http://www.spiderrobinson.com/melancholyelephants.html

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