A few years ago, we first wrote about the supposed missing black hole
of culture due to copyright, based on some excellent research by Paul Heald, looking at the availability of new books on Amazon based on the years they were published. It produced this chart:
As you can see, there are a bunch of recent books, then a huge drop off... until a sudden spike at 1922 -- also known as the year before which nearly all books are in the public domain. That giant gaping hole on the right side of the graph should be pretty distressing. It counters the totally false narrative by certain legacy copyright system supporters that copyright is necessary to get books published and also that without copyright, no one would bother to sell the works, because they could just be copied by others. But, more importantly, it shows how much important culture is totally locked up because of copyright law -- unable to be published by those who'd like to offer them, and not worth it for the copyright holders to actually publish.
Late last year, EU Parliament Julia Reda published a similar chart
concerning the EU:
That one also looked at books, in the same manner as Heald's original research. On top of that, Heald himself has continued to explore this issue
, including comparing new books to used books and also looking at the music space.
Now we've got even more evidence of how copyright kills such culture. Europeana has taken a similar look at a large corpus of digitized works
in Europe and mapped it out. Guess what? Despite being a totally different data set, the graphic looks astoundingly similar:
Of course, the "black hole" in this case only goes back to the early 1940s, rather than the 1920s, because copyright terms in Europe tend
to be life plus 50 rather than life plus 70, but there have been some efforts to change that as well.
Once again, this should
raise serious questions about the problems of copyright term length. It seems fairly obvious that at their current length, copyright terms are actively suppressing a ridiculous amount of cultural output, much of it likely to be lost forever to history -- as by the time it actually goes into the public domain, it may not even exist any more. This is a pretty big problem -- especially given all the claims about how necessary copyright supposedly is for protecting culture. It seems fairly clear from these charts that it's frequently doing the opposite.
And yet... rather than fix
this aspect of copyright law, policy makers seem to be focused on making it worse. The final version of the TPP agreement forces all countries who sign on to move to life plus 70 instead of life plus 50. It's likely that the TTIP agreement will include some similar provisions.
Every time we post these charts, we also post this chart from William Patry's book Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars
, which showed the copyright renewal rates on various works in 1958 and 1959, back when you had to "renew" your copyright after 28 years.
As the chart makes clear, for most
types of works the copyright is clearly worth basically nothing after 28 years. Movies are the main exception, as are some maps and at least some musical compositions (this was in a time before sound recordings could even get a federal copyright, though I imagine those might have a decently high renewal rate, probably at least on par with musical compositions).
All of this should raise serious questions about why we have copyright terms that are so long when the vast majority of content doesn't value that protection and
(more importantly) the clearly visible harm to culture and public knowledge created by such long copyright term lengths. And, again, it raises the question of why we don't move to a system whereby copyright holders should be required to renew their copyright at specific intervals, to make sure that such monopoly rights are still more valuable than the public interest in those works.
And, in the meantime, anyone pushing for longer
copyright terms, given how much of this information is now out there, is outing themselves as someone who is clearly against the public interest and shouldn't be taken seriously. And that includes the current negotiators from the USTR who pushed strongly for the copyright expansion in the TPP in the face of all of this evidence.