Professor Paul J. Heald of the University of Illinois College of Law has just released a new study that puts Chris Meadows’s recent problems with out-of-print stories from Astounding Stories into perspective. Remember that it was Heald whose previous research found that extension of copyright terms actually reduced the availability of books. And his new report, “The Demand for Out-of-Print Works and Their (Un)Availability in Alternative Markets,” has found that, while demand for out-of-print books as ebooks or in other forms remains high, supply remains atrocious in comparison to older musical works.
Heald compares the availability of popular songs and music from the 1920s and 1930s to the availability of popular book titles from the same periods as ebooks, demolishing the idea that there is no interest in such works. “Availability spikes for pre-1923 works, suggesting that some pent-up demand exists for older works, at least when cheap and efficient print-on-demand publishers can offer them without having to negotiate for the right to copy.” But the supply situation is a different story. As the graphic here illustrates, supply of early 20th-century popular songs on iTunes runs at around 85 percent. The figure for popular books published between 1923 and 1932 is closer to 35 percent. And for “a sample of 950 fiction and non-fiction books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review,” for the period 1930-50 it’s down to less than 10 percent.
Heald finds a stark comparison between books published prior to 1922 and released into the public domain, and those from subsequent years. “In 2014, 94% of 165 public domain bestsellers from 1913-22 were available in eBook format, up from 48% in 2006,” he states. “Data on the eBook availability of copyrighted bestsellers from the same era tells a different story. Of 167 bestsellers from 1923-32 still under copyright, only 27% (45/167) had been made available as eBooks by 2014.”
Heald concludes as follows:
“Whatever the reasons for differences in the book and music publishing industries, the lack of availability of books from the post-1923 portion of the 20th century is startling. Senator Orrin Hatch argued in defense of the 1998 term extension that maintaining the availability and distribution of works is at the heart of the meaning of “progress” in the Copyright Clause of the Constitution. He was absolutely correct about the purpose of copyright, but utterly wrong about how to solve the problem of missing works. Copyright term extensions have clearly prevented the development of a market for re-printing the massive number of “missing” works from the 20th century. If availability matters, then further attempts to extend the copyright term should be resisted, not encouraged. Copyright was not designed by the framers of the Constitution as a means by which Congress could make books disappear.”
Yes, the lagging situation for reprints of unavailable titles as ebooks is ridiculous. Yes, further copyright extensions will only make it worse. Sounds like both an opportunity – and a massive threat.