Disappearing Books

Copyright's costs


Copyright is supposed to guarantee a fair income to intellectual property creators and stimulate new creative work. But a new study by law professor Paul J. Heald, produced for the University of Illinois College of Law, indicates that copyright keeps older copyrighted works off bookshelves, benefiting neither creator nor audience.

Defenders of lengthy copyright terms claim creative works need owners to stay available. But Heald, using random samples of thousands of books available on Amazon, found that "copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability.…More than three times as many new fiction books originally published in the 1850s are for sale by Amazon [as new books] than books from the 1950s," although that earlier decade had far fewer total books published. 

Assuming older works are less desirable, one might expect to see the number of books available fall with the age of the book. In fact, the curve "rebounds spectacularly for books currently in the public domain" (published before 1923). The number of fiction books from the 1910s readily available via Amazon is nearly three times the number of fiction books from the 1920s.

Even for books within copyright, Heald finds a huge decline in availability looking back merely two decades. "Publishing business models make books disappear fairly shortly after their publication," he writes, "and long before they are scheduled to fall into the public domain." Heald's conclusion: "Copyright makes books disappear."