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Where Did All Our Books Go?

Paul J. Heald

Rebecca Rosen has a very good piece over at The Atlantic documenting just how much damage overzealous copyright extension has done to the accessibility of information, books specifically. University of Illinois professor Paul J. Heald used software to crawl Amazon.com for a random sample of books in order to figure out just how many books were available from each decade of the the past two centuries.

Given the explosion in literacy and production, one would expect a steadily increasing curve, possibly marked by advances in education, or upswings in the economy, or increases in leisure. Instead, there is a nice downward swing that just happens to coincide with the end of public domain and the beginning of our modern copyright period.

Heald even adjusted for the estimated number of books published each decade, and

By this calculation, the effect of copyright appears extreme. Heald says that the WorldCat research showed, for example, that there were eight times as many books published in the 1980s as in the 1880s, but there are roughly as many titles available on Amazon for the two decades. 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.

Intellectual property rights are enshrined in the Constitution, and are well-recognized as both necessary and just in order to allow for a creator to be compensated for his work and to incentivize the production of new creations. What is particularly problematic is not the existence of copyrighted works, but the indefinite extension of those protections.

Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of the Walt Disney empire to maintain its major money maker, Mickey Mouse, copyrights that used to have a periodic expiration have now been continually extended to the point where, beginning in the 1920s, any work worth its salt is still under exclusive rights. One of the many arguments for this has been that copyright is necessary after the initial incentive has been provided for production, in order to ensure continued distribution and publication of the works. If a publisher owned the rights to a book, they would be more likely to keep printing it than if it were free for anyone to print.

However, Heald “found that public domain status significantly increased the chance that a book would be in print and increased the number of publishers of it.” When a work is in the public domain, it suddenly becomes possibly for a multiplicity of publishers to find profitable, productive uses for it. There is a more serious, and troubling dimension to the copyright extension saga, however, extending beyond mere profitability.

Taken collectively, the creative works of our culture constitute a vital part of the historical record, and are a linchpin in providing context to our political debates. The restrictions are not limited to books, but extend to images, audio, and broadcasts, all of which likely undergo the same disappearing act. The period between the 1920s and the mid-2000s when creative commons licensing became more widespread, is a giant gap in the available record for those hoping to replicate or publicize works from an era that includes the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement, not to mention many other key political and cultural touchstones.

Intellectual property reform, then, may be a political, as well as an economic, imperative.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at jcoppage@theamericanconservative.com.

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