Sentences to ponder

A random sample of new books for sale on shows three times more books initially published in the 1850’s are for sale than new books from the 1950’s.

Here is much more, from Paul J. Heald.


That shouldn't be a surprise, Amazon or other sellers aren't going to sell a book from any period that's utility doesn't exceed it's price for enough buyers to earn a return on their time. 1850s books are out of copyright and thus "for sale" in kindle form for free (Amazon's goal seems to be to drive kindle interest and interest in modern books as well) or nominal cost, meaning that anyone deriving even minimal utility from them likely exceeds the price. While those from the 1950s are subject to cartel pricing that needs to pay for a good amount of modern publisher overhead.

This explanation implies a discontinuity at 1923, when copyrights were sharply extended.

(saying this without skepticism. I have no clue whether there is a discontinuity. It would be interesting to find out if there is)

Exactly, if you can download the paper, there's a chart on page 15 that shows a large increase in titles by decade from 1800 to 1910 then drop off in 1920 and 1930 and remaining low (my guess would be 1820s levels until 1990 and 2000s. I'd expect to see exactly that pattern if data were available by year. I'm pretty sure the chart has been linked or talked about here before, but a little googling didn't jog my memory of the specific article.

There are tons of tiny presses that sell print versions of OCR'd public domain texts, often for ridiculous prices. The quality of these books is generally atrocious.


It would be much more interesting to see how many books initially published in the 1850’s sold compared to books from the 1950’s.

Amazon also group reviews together for different versions of public domain books, tricking people into over-paying for no-value-add (junk) digital and print editions. People looking for good editions can't tell which is which. Do a search on "Treatise of Human Nature" and look at the junk that comes up.

There should be some sunset clause for copyright on books that haven't been published in 50 years. Use it or lose it.

Gerge Stigler once wrote a satirical article in response to the classic Franklin Fisher, et. al., paper on the cost of annual model changes in the auto industry in which he analyzed book publishing in a similar way. "Isn't the Rise and Fall of the Dutch Republic," he wrote, "a much better book than the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?" (Not verbatum.) You can take it from there. One of Stigler's best.

I think this will cease to be a problem with the advent of Kindle Books, even for the 1950's, assuming there's a market. As imprints are sold and go out of business, and better analytics are developed to mine for popularity (are these books being referenced online? In journals?) we'll see more and more books available online. And of course, modern books will continue to be available for kindle since there's no cost once their programmed.

I've always thought that copyright protection was WAY too long. Why are they longer than patents? 17 years should be sufficient to make a good profit if the book is going to be a success. If you write a classic that people are still reading two decades later then you should be satisfied with the fame and not ongoing royalties. It would make reading those classics so much easier.

Even if 17 years is too short, the current length is ridiculous. What is it, the life of the author plus 50 years?

An easy solution is a renewal fee that's $1 in the first year each year after it doubles.

Life of the author plus 70 years, in the US, actually.

As for why it's so long, the answer is (cynical and oversimplified, but still true) because Disney won't let Steamboat Willie fall into the public domain. That's why the last copyright extension was retroactive. And so, likely, will be the next one, once Steamboat Willie is about to lose copyright protection.

The requirements of the Berne Convention would like to have a talk with you.

Getting into line with Europe's extremely protective copyright regime was a major driver of insane copyright in the US.

Grammar Nazi Alert
"1850’s are for sale than new books from the 1950’s."
Brought to you by the Committee to Save the Apostrophe from Abuse.

Is there really anything that can be done about it though? Honestly. If so why has it not been done already? 'Pondering' and complaining about it won't change it, but the validity of it the comments may be justified if a change actually occurs from it. What recommendations would be made that could change things? I am not being sarcastic, just looking for a bit more perspective than what has already been offered.

I wonder if the publishers of many of the books from the 1950s can even be found/identified? If found, can the legal rights be determined? I ask this as I recall even a popular video game called "System Shock 2" originally released in 1999 was recently re-released to high anticipation/demand by in 2013 and it took GOG quite a bit of doing to work out the legalities with all the rights holders just to make it available again. I can't imagine very many people going to much trouble to iron out the legalities for much less in demand publications from 60 years ago.

This is a good thing. Books from the 1850s were hard to find a generation ago.

Most copyrighted works derive most of their real value from their social value: A big part of the value of culture is the shared experience. If you are the only one experiencing a work, or said work is very old news to the people you interact with, it loses quite a bit of value.

Therefore, the real commercial value of 99.9% of all copyrighted works that are 10 years old or more is extremely low. Sometimes we are lucky, and we find industries that ignore those kinds of copyright infringement: Nobody is going after archives of 8 bit computer software. For most copyrighted works though, what we get is just loss culture.

I do not see how this will ever change though, because it's a classic example where the people that have something to gain from indefinite copyright have a lot to gain, while a large majority of people lose a bit, but not enough to change their vote for this matter. Logic of Collective Action and all that. We have a way bigger chance of improving patents instead, because it has far better political dynamics.

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