by Dave Stokes
This problem is well illustrated by recent research summed up in an article by Rebecca J Rosen in The Atlantic, The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish.
"A book published during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur has a greater chance of being in print today than one published during the time of Reagan."
The article examines research by Paul J. Heald at the University of Illinois who has analysed all books available on Amazon to see how different decades in the last 150 years are represented. The copyright Bermuda Triangle is clear in the statistics presented. Books available from the 1850's are double the number of titles from the 1950's. Basically you can buy and access millions of currently published titles plus just about everything pre-1923 but very little in between. So millions of books are hidden away because they're not worth republishing and copyright prevents them from being published digitally. Heald sums up the situation:
"Copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability ... 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."
Since no-one is going to make any money from selling this vast resource why not let them be available as simple e-books for free? At least they will be available and read by some. Maybe they could be sold for micro-payments, a bit like the music service Spotify, where subscribers pay a low monthly fee and can read whatever they want. That way the authors could at least earn a little from their title instead of zero if it is out of publication as at present. I'm not suggesting that we do this for best-sellers but for the millions of forgotten books that are now languishing in the Bermuda Triangle of copyright.