Intellectual Property

How Copyright Seems to Keep Books Unavailable and Unexploited: A Graph


Via the "Offsetting Behavior" blog from Eric Crampton:

Crampton explains:

Recall that books published through 1922 are in the public domain in the US; those published since then are covered by copyright…..

So any arguments about underexploitation of unprotected works seem untenable.

If this were a moving wall, maybe it wouldn't be so bad: eventually, books would come out of copyright and be released in new editions. But Disney does keep going back and insisting that nothing can ever be returned to the Commons from which they so liberally drew, and Congress loves Disney; we might reasonably expect another copyright term extension act to keep the wall fairly rigid.

I do not, by the way, blog this as a confirmed anti-IP libertarian, but as data about how copyright contributes to the actual access to and use of old books, I found it interesting.

Jesse Walker wrote on how IP enforcement can hobble cultural production in his March 2000 Reason classic "Copy Catfight."

NEXT: Walkable Smart-Hub Hollywood Only Dead in Reality

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Is alt-text restricted by copyright, too?

    1. You’ll get alt-txt from me when you pry a steady stream of appropriate comedy from my cold, dead fingers.

      1. Your proposal is acceptable.

      2. What if we promise to buy your Paul book?

        1. Let’s not get crazy.

          1. Why would I buy a book? You can’t alt-text a book.

  2. If the socialist ever came to me and said, ‘but we’ll let you shoot the Mouse’, I would have to double cross every principle I held and join them.

    1. “Vengeance is mine! You are all ants and I am your Destroyer! Ha ha!”

      1. The Mouse is lucky Cthulu came out a few years before him. Could you imagine the reaction of the other studios if they couldn’t fuck up those stories?

        1. From Beyond is pretty watchable, as are most of the Lovecraft adaptations that Jeffery Combs was in.

        2. Lovecraft already fucked up Hodgson’s work.

          Who cares what other people did to it later.

        3. Cthulhu and Mickey Mouse? THE HORROR.

    2. It’d certainly be tempting.

      1. You need to do more of these, dude.

        1. Shit, someone needs to post there more regularly. It’s the five year anniversary next month. Which is weird in itself.

  3. Copyright protection needs to be like patent protection. Rock solid protection when it’s in force; limited duration; and mainteance fees to keep it in force.

    1. I like it. We don’t follow the rest of the droit moral; why did we also adopt that silly ‘lifetime of the author’ term? Let’s go back to 30 + 30 with automatic reversion of rights to the author.

      I’d add a requirement to practice or otherwise make an embodiment of the invention for patent protection. I guess the equivalent for copyright would be a requirement to publish the work periodically. You haven’t published in the last 10 years, you lose your exclusivity.

      None of which will happen, of course.

    2. I don’t think there should be any IP law, but I could be talked into something like this provided the time frame was no more than 15 years.

      Make your money then GTFO of the way.


    The next Sony and Microsoft console releases might lock game disc use to only the purchaser’s account. Bullshit. Aside from not being able to conveniently play secondhand or shared games, I wouldn’t even buy a console that required me to maintain an account to use it.

    1. The value of a console, relative to a midrange gaming PC, is rapidly becoming not-apparent. It’s not like you can’t plug a PC into a TV and use a gamepad.

      1. On the PC most games are already bind on account.

        1. But they also don’t usually stay at $60 forever. Plus you’ve got a back-catalog covering a couple of decades, if you shop at places like, which has the benefits of the account-binding (namely, redownloading later if needed) without the drawbacks (no DRM).

          1. I buy games off of Steam that are a year or two old all the time for like $10. It’s bound to an account, but you can download the game to as many computers as you want.

            1. Yeah. For something that requires internet verification to play games, Steam is pretty good. I don’t even own any consoles.

              1. My concern about accounts being required for consoles, is, what happens to your account, and the functionality of the console, after the maker releases a new console and the old version is deemed obsolete? I would like to continue to be able to play my games keeping in mind the possibility that I might have to buy some secondhand hardware and software replacements. I don’t want to end up with a brick and a bunch of useless discs. My Atari, Nintendo 64, Playstation 2, and Game Boys all still work fine. I had a Playstation 3 account a while back, but I ignored it for a while, and the system I had access to died and was replaced. Fuck if I know how to get the account back.

          2. But they also don’t usually stay at $60 forever.

            Neither do console games.

            Mass Effect 2 is for sale at amazon for 20$

            Skyrim is now under $50.

      2. An XBox is $300. I had Cyberpower build me a PC to my specs with a fucking retarded video card in it for $700 and free shipping. It’s vastly more powerful, can do so much more, and only cost $400 more.

        1. And you have to consider that you’re getting a PC too. Most people aren’t going actually say “No, I don’t need a computer, I have an XBox”, so the cost of the gaming part of the PC is just the margin above what they would pay for a non-gaming PC.

          1. Yup. Though I don’t actually use my gaming computer for anything but gaming, at least right now. And it outperforms an XBox by a mile. I can max the video settings in The Witcher 2.

            I cannot wait until Diablo III is released in May.

            1. Have fun with online-only single player.

              1. We’ll see how long that lasts. But it shouldn’t inconvenience me regardless seeing as I’ll only be playing it at home.

  5. Walt Disney originally designed his vault for an entirely different purpose. Unfortunately for him, the Forties changed before he finished it and it had to be repurposed. Yada yada yada, today we have termless copyright laws.

  6. If the soccer moms could be convinced that this would save them money without compromising quality/saftey/whatever argument used to scare them, we may have a chance.

  7. That paper’s a fucking mess, but I think the immovable wall it’s found in the ’20s is the point (or the front edge of a cluster of points that extend to the present) where your average book-reading person stops liking the books that writers of “classics” have made.

    J.R. and Omensetter’s Luck are just not substitute goods for My Antonia and Scaramouche. That “market” is two scarcely overlapping markets, and the market for the works the paper categorizes as “copyrighted” (rather than as, say, “shit girls don’t like”) is comparatively tiny.

    Because it is.

    I can’t believe there’s a price-per-page calculation pretending to do explanatory work in that paper.

    Cannot goddamn believe it.

    1. There might be a smidgeon of truth to that, but there were some good works written in that period that have been largely forgotten – because these ludicrously restrictive copyright laws prevent those who discover the books from doing anything with them. It may be that the greatest author of all time was writing in the 1950s but few people understood how good he was at the time – and he won’t get the chance that Shakespeare got because copyright has become perpetual. (Yes, Shakespeare was largely forgotten for two centuries before he was rediscovered in the 1800s.)

    2. the ’20s is the point (or the front edge of a cluster of points that extend to the present) where your average book-reading person stops liking the books that writers of “classics” have made.

      Yeah, there’s just no popular interest in the era of obscure, unloved writers like Dashiell Hammett, H.P. Lovecraft, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  8. Better dead than Red

  9. I do not, by the way, blog this as a confirmed anti-IP libertarian

    You don’t have to be anti-IP to think that 90+ years is too long for a copyright to last.

    1. I agree. I don’t mind strong copyright, but the period should be no more than 30 years, and probably not more than 10.

      1. I think that there were some pretty good old laws that were indefinitely extended. Once we had a 25 year copyright that the owner could pay a fee to extend out to 50 years if they were still using that work.

        Another old law was something like 25 years, or until the author dies (but this doesn’t apply to corporations,) whichever happens last. Eric Schwartz at Baen Books had some good ideas on this.

        The graph clearly shows that about 20 years is enough for about 90% of all books, but the last 5-10% never really drops off.

    2. Apparently Doherty not only hates children but hates his potential grandchildren – denying them the royalties on his works long after he is dead.

  10. Copyright 2012, Reason Magazine.


    1. I wonder if reason copyrighted the covers of the issue that had a satellite image of the house it was delivered to.

      1. Whoa.

  11. Awesome chart!

  12. The moar I think about it, the moar it makes sense.

  13. i’m in favor of copyright, but 20 years is plenty. It would do a lot for textbook prices, too: there are lots of 20 year old textbooks out there that are still very good.

    1. Copyright isn’t what drives textbook prices up, it’s collusion among universities. There is a particular calculus textbook that has undergone a revision about every three years and our department requires the newest edition every time one comes out.

      Of course, the content of freshman-level calculus hasn’t changed for over 100 years. You could argue that Lebesgue integration and some numerical analysis topics have changed since then but those don’t get covered in freshman calculus. The changes are made partially as a sop to publishers who may look more kindly on books we write if we assign new editions.

    2. And of course they ensure that students attempting to use previous editions or international editions are screwed by:

      (a) changing the order of the problems in the text, and

      (b) providing automatically graded homework systems via the web, so the professor doesn’t have to grade anything…except the code students need to set up an account is only found in a new textbook and is only valid once. The appropriately named Wiley goes one step further and allows students to purchase a code for 75% of the price of a new text.

  14. Here’s an idea I’ve been floating for a while: what if Congress passed a law revoking all copyright protections for pornography? The Bill of Rights is pretty clear that everyone has freedom of expression, but it doesn’t say our officials are under any obligation to protect any of the profits anyone makes from free expression, does it? Online file-sharing and video-sharing sites are already helping to kill the porno industry, so why not administer the final stroke?

    The customers wouldn’t object because this means they get all the free porn they want, moral guardians wouldn’t object to seeing the porn industry killed, and the anti-copyright bill’s supporters would all gain in popularity among every last one of their constituencies except for the relatively tiny porno industry voting bloc (and no one will care about those losers when they don’t have much money to spend on lobbying).

    1. OK, but why do you support this idea? Do you not like porn?

      And the porn industry won’t die anyway… the net is already full of free porn and people still pay for it out of laziness or honesty. There’s a lot of consolidation in the world, but that happens in every industry as it matures. Look at the fast food industry.

      1. Well, no, I generally don’t like the porn industry. A rather fascinating article I read on the subject subtly revealed to me that, among other things, the people making porn are even bigger losers than the people consuming it. It’s basically prostitution with cameras: whether you think prostitution should be legal or not, it’s still a pretty deservedly disreputable business.

        Moreover, as hinted in the article, the industry is dying. I don’t doubt as long as there are cameras we’ll always have people making naughty pictures of themselves, but the number of people willing to pay for these is rapidly approaching zero. Specialization won’t save them either; the day some video gaming company releases a sophisticated porn simulation program, it’ll be curtains for the live actors.

        1. Moreover, as hinted in the article, the industry is dying.

          By what measure? She says “the people she talked to” (excellent methodology for that survey) say profits are down 30 to 50 percent. Again, that happens quite often as industries mature. She could have done a report on the fast food industry in the late 1980s and presented the same fact. It didn’t die.

          And if the number of people willing to pay for porn were rapidly approaching zero they would be losing money, not seeing 30% lower profits.

          1. The people to whom Breslin was talking were in some position to know whereof they spoke, being bosses of the industry. They were being forced to specialize into weirder and weirder niches because their profits kept going down. The fast food industry, as yet, has never had to compete against anything that can replicate its product well-nigh infinitely the way the internet can with porn. If the surviving porno producers are not running deficits yet from their continuing drop in profits, they soon will be.

            Of course, if you’re confident that the porn industry isn’t doomed and that even stripping it of all copyright protections won’t kill it, then you should have no objections to this idea of mine, right? It might even make an interesting intellectual property test case.

    2. Didn’t somebody point out an example from Germany where they had no copyright laws, but had more output than places where there WERE copyright laws?

      As a pornography consumer who has both paid and pirated, I say let’s try it.

  15. How’s this for an idea: make the copyright term essentially eternal (as it already is de facto) but require copyrights to be renewed for a steadily increasing fee every 10 years. Then Disney can keep Mickey out of the public domain as long as they want, for a far lesser amount of money they spend on lobbying for the extensions… but works that stop being profitable to the rights holders will slip back into the public domain when the holder doesn’t want to pay the renewal fee.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.