Copyright - is it a bad thing?

Posted by Paul Samael on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 Under: Self-publishing

This article (highlighted on Tom Lichtenberg’s blog) made me wonder whether copyright is a “good thing.”  It discusses some research suggesting that copyright acts as an obstacle to books remaining in print.  This conclusion is based on the somewhat startling finding that more books are available on Amazon from the early part of the 20th century than is the case with books published in the last 20 years or so.  The author of the research suggests that this is because the older books are generally out of copyright (in most countries copyright exists for the life of the author plus 70 years).

But is it really fair to blame copyright for this state of affairs?  It’s certainly part of the explanation, but the reason we have it is so that, if you want to make a living out of writing, you can stop other people copying your stuff and ripping you off.  I can’t see anything wrong with that, in principle – and even though my books are free, I have used my copyright in them to stop pirated copies appearing for profit on Amazon (if copyright did not exist, Amazon would have had very little incentive to comply with my request).  

I think the blame lies more with publishers – which Tom identified in his blog entry, whereas the article at times seemed to be blaming copyright itself.  The problem with publishers is that they typically demand an exclusive licence of copyright – but won’t then commit to keeping a book available.  As a result, each book has only a limited chance to secure its future – if it doesn’t sell well enough in its first year or so, it disappears from view. 

In the past there were understandable reasons for that – why should publishers waste money on producing a product which has been proven not to sell?  Nowadays though, the costs of keeping a book available as an ebook are so low that an argument based on cost of production doesn’t really hold up – it’s more a question of publishers only having the resources to promote a limited number of titles each year.

But there is a risk that the publisher decides to just sit on the rights, hoping that someday, something unexpected will happen to make them really valuable.  Maybe Steven Spielberg will decide to make a film out of this book?  Or maybe some successful author will cite the book as an influence and then everyone will want to buy it again?  And maybe the moon will turn out to be made of green cheese.  But I guess that publishers take the view that it’s like holding hundreds of thousands of lottery tickets – some day, they reckon, one of them has got to come up trumps.

I suppose you can blame copyright for this state of affairs, but I’m more inclined to blame publishers for just sitting on the rights and refusing to allow “unsuccessful” books to revert back to authors.

P.S.  Having thought about this a bit more overnight, it occurs to me that publishers could allow the rights to revert back to the author but keep an option to buy back the rights if e.g. the book proves successful as a self-published work.  That might actually be a better model for them, because where the author is prepared to make the book available and promote it through self-publishing, the chances of at least some of those books becoming successful are likely to be higher (so for publishers adopting the "lottery ticket" approach outlined above, it ought to be a better bet).  Authors would need to watch out for how the option was drafted (they could lose out if it allowed the publisher to buy back the book on miserly terms) - but in principle, it might offer a way past the logjam highlighted in the article.

Sadly, as noted previously on this blog, publishers seem to be quite set in their ways and I doubt that this issue is top of their list of priorities.

In : Self-publishing 


Tags: copyright publishers "reversion of rights" 
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About Me


Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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