Friday, August 2, 2013

Copyright Bermuda Triangle

Whirlpool by Dave Stokes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by Dave Stokes

The book shops of the world are crammed with titles and more books are published today than ever before. However once a book has been available for a few years it disappears from the shelves and unless the publishers think it worth a new edition it will become extremely difficult to read the book unless your local library happens to have a copy. This is one major problem with current copyright law. Popular titles will of course be republished regularly but the vast majority will not be worth a publisher producing a new edition and as a result they will become unavailable outside a few libraries or second-hand bookstores. Millions of books are lost until the copyright period expires.

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.


  1. In Sweden we have a system with a plight to send every edition of a released book to seven appointed university libraries. The books are searchable in the databases and can always be borrowed from another public library, generally for free.

    I live very near one of these seven university libraries. I often visit the huge storerooms underground and borrow any book I want.

    - Don´t you have similar systems in other countries, like Britain and the USA?

    1. Eva: Creelman lives in Sweden. And theoretical availability from a library is not the point. The main problem is that this kind of content is not available online. Copyright stopped digitization. Google books would be a tremendous tool for research, but the publishers won't allow it.

  2. It seems that "The long tail" is wrong!

  3. As I wrote there are a few copies of all books in a few libraries but the point is that they are unnecessarily hard to access. Why not publish them online and let people access them freely? They're not going to make any more money since they're out of publication.