Copyright Law and the Availability of Books

One of my goals for this blog is to expose writers to other views of copyright law and policy. Writers, in my experience, tend to view copyright as akin property and as having a moral justification – “I created it, therefore I should own it.” I know that is an oversimplification; most writers’ views contain more nuance than that. But it is, I think, an accurate representation of the core of those views.

While one can find a thread of that view, the natural rights view, in copyright law and cases throughout the history of US copyright law, it is not the dominant or explicit justification for copyright in US law. It is a view more commonly associated with the continental European approach to copyright.

The Anglo-American approach to copyright has expressed a different narrative. In most explicit discussion of the theory underlying copyright law, copyright is about incentives. On the surface, this fits with the writer’s view. A creator would not invest the time and effort into writing a book unless the law provided a means to capitalize on that work. And if that were the extent of it, then we wouldn’t see many if any divergences between the natural rights view and the incentive view. However, the incentive view goes deeper when we examine the goals toward which those incentives are pointed.

The enumerated powers in the US Constitution includes the following in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8:

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries

This is commonly referred to as the IP clause and it serves as the basis for federal legislative power covering patent and copyright laws.* Note that it sets forth as the goal “to promote the progress of science and useful arts” and not to promote the creation of works. The Constitution was drafted at the end of the 18th Century, a century featured a long debate in England about copyright and patent law. The Founders would have been quite familiar with the policy arguments.

founding fathersThe goal of the incentive structure set up by copyright law, so it is argued, is to promote benefits to society. That is done primarily by providing creators with economic incentives, but those economic incentives are not the ultimate goal. They are merely a means to an end.

This is where balancing comes in. In pursuit of that end, the economic incentives might be limited and balanced against the good of society. More specifically, copyright is seen as limiting the benefit to society by increasing costs of access to the works and at times reducing access to the works.

A theorist looking at the incentive theory would say that we want to maximize societal benefit. That means a couple of things. First, we should only give the bare minimum of copyright protection necessary to guarantee production, and not one bit more. Of course, there is no single line in the sand so to speak. It is a continuum in which more protection theoretically leads to more works, and less to less. Finding that optimum point for societal benefit is the incentive theorist’s goal. An incentive theorist only gives the bare minimum necessary to insure production because every increase in protection theoretically comes at a cost to society – some times literally, as in the works cost more. Second, most theorists would include not only production of a work but also access to the work as a necessary component of societal benefit. Greater and longer protection can in certain circumstances decrease the availability of a work.

It is this second point – the relationship between copyright law and access to works – that is the subject of a recent study that generated quite a bit of interest in academic copyright circles (and beyond – does The Atlantic qualify as beyond?):

How Copyright Makes Books and Music Disappear (and How Secondary Liability Rules Help Resurrect Old Songs)

by Paul J. Heald

Heald’s study is nicely summarized by Rebecca Rosen in The Atlantic. Her summary features the tagline: “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.” Some high points from the article:

There were as many books available [on Amazon] from the 1910s as there were from the 2000s. The number of books from the 1850s was double the number available from the 1950s. Why? Copyright protections (which cover titles published in 1923 and after) had squashed the market for books from the middle of the 20th century, keeping those titles off shelves and out of the hands of the reading public.

. . .

“Copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability,” Heald writes. “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.”

. . .

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.

With beginning of the semester fully upon me, I haven’t had the time to go through the full study and likely won’t anytime soon. However allow me to play the TL;DNR devil’s advocate.

First, I wonder if the game has changed. Has the recently emerged ability to keep any book in stock without warehousing costs (eBooks, POD) changed what will happen to books in the future? Perhaps this dip is a thing of the past. In pre-Internet days, shelf space was at a premium and the costs of physical books over their lifespans perhaps contributed to the effect seen in the study. In that world, it made sense for publishers to maintain supplies of the most recent books if those were going to produce the most sales in the short-term. And keep in mind, that the lack of these books availability in eBook or POD formats may in large part  be due to the inability of publishers to undertake the digitization process for massive backlists and due to a simple loss of information on who owns the copyrights for the lost books (orphan works).** In a world where maintaining the availability of books is virtually costless, we may not see such a decrease in availability moving forward.

Second, I wonder how much influence school reading lists have on the availability of some of these older works. Is that list of canonical works skewing the data?

Third, even taking this effect into account, it may not indicate that current copyright law’s incentive calculus is off. Even if lengthy copyright duration is reducing the relative availability of works, the net creation and value produced by copyright incentives could still be ideal or at least positive. The number of available works is just one small part of the measurement of copyright’s results.

* Though perhaps counterintuitive to our modern word usage, “science” refers to copyright and “useful arts” refers to patents.

**The orphan works problem and proposed “solutions” could fill several more blog posts.


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