The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish (The Atlantic)

Great piece by Rebecca J. Rosen in The Atlantic on the effect copyright law has on the availability of books.  Suppression of the availability of knowledge would seem counter to the purpose of copyright as stated in the Constitution “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

Last year I wrote about some very interesting research being done by Paul J. Heald at the University of Illinois, based on software that crawled Amazon for a random selection of books. At the time, his results were only preliminary, but they were nevertheless startling: There were as many books available 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.titlesavailable650

…the depression of the 20th century is…notable, followed by a little boom for the most recent decades when works fall into the public domain. Presumably, as Heald writes, in a market with no copyright distortion, these graphs would show “a fairly smoothly doward sloping curve from the decade 2000-20010 to the decade of 1800-1810 based on the assumption that works generally become less popular as they age (and therefore are less desirable to market).” But that’s not at all what we see. “Instead,” he continues, “the curve declines sharply and quickly, and then rebounds significantly for books currently in the public domain initially published before 1923.” Heald’s conclusion? Copyright “makes books disappear”; its expiration brings them back to life. Read more.

(Via OLDaily)

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