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.
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)
This would allow popular and profitable works to stay under copyright longer, while allowing less profitable works to enter the public domain sooner.
I think you should wait X years (where X is around 10-20) before that formula kicks in.
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;
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Democrats; Supported by Hollywood.
Republicans; Supported by big companies.
That's a problem with a broken democracy. In Europe you don't have that problem, at least not to such an extreme extend.
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).
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.
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
25 years seems fair.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
† Assuming profit is the driving motivator, as copyright does.
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.
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
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.
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.
 Joe writes a book. He shows it to Bob for notes. Bob publishes it under his own name. The copyright would belong to Bob.
Anyways, if you can't move product in a few years, you should be trying something new.
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.
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  are highly unlikely to pass on paying a nominal fee  when the potential return is so high.
 Only companies are likely to have orphan works that are even known to exist by anyone willing to appropriate them.
 The fee must necessarily be nominal, lest you again disadvantage the lone creator/outsider.
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.
It does society no good to have your grandchildren living off your legacy without an imperative to create their own.
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, 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.
 As long as some moral rights are preserved, e.g. one cannot take credit for someone else's work.
In fact auto registration has shifted power towards the fewer.
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...
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.
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)
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...
"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.
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.
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
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 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.)
Following the source link in Yglesias' post , the graph seems to come from a presentation that Paul Heald (a professor at the University of Illinois)  did at the University of Canterbury . 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
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.
> 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.
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.
I would say infinite sequels, reboots, and remakes are killing culture more than infinite copyright.
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.
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.
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).
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.