Thursday, August 1, 2013

The cost of copyright

     I've written before about how I couldn't find an in-print edition of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. I wondered if it might be a problem of copyright, that publishers might want to publish the book but couldn't get their hands on the copyright permissions. I even wondered if the book was about to go out of copyright and the publishers were just waiting for the opportunity.
     Probably not, as it turns out. While copyright law is complicated for books published after 1923 and before 1978 (after 1978, they remain under copyright for 70 years after the death of the author; before 1923, they are already in the public domain), but The Demolished Man was probably under copyright when Bester died, and will probably remain so for decades more.
     Then just a few days ago, I wondered if I could find a new copy of Isaac Asimov's Asimov's Mysteries -- a collection of his science fictional mystery stories -- and couldn't find an edition in print.
     Then I wondered why there had been no move by a publisher to do the complete short stories of Isaac Asimov in uniform, chronological editions, as had and is being done with other, lesser-known and less popular authors. Only a few years after Philip K. Dick's death, there was a five-volume hardcover set of his complete short stories. Asimov's complete short stories would take many more volumes, but there would surely be a demand for it.
     Now The Atlantic offers a possible explanation: publishers are ignoring copyrighted titles, even comparably recent ones. Rebecca J. Rosen's The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish quotes research by Paul Heald, who concludes that, because of "publishing business models," "Publishers seem unwilling to sell their books on Amazon for more than a few years after their initial publication," while "Copyright law then deters (the books') reappearance as long as they are owned."
     The reason that copyright law mandates ownership for so long after the author's death is supposedly so the writer or his heirs will maximize their profit, but seems really to ensure that publishers of certain perennially popular books can maintain their profits without competition. If the laws were to protect writers, a book that was out-of-print for, say, five years would revert to the author (or his heirs) who could then resell it to another publisher, or even self-publish.
      Many writers' contracts do have such a clause, which leads to their having to first prove the book is out of print. Why do publishers hang on to books they don't plan to keep in print? I suppose because an author might become hot, write a bestseller that will make his or her back catalog more appealing and worth reprinting.
     The rise of e-books and print-on-demand technology might solve this problem, at least for new titles, but what of older titles that never became e-books? Brick-and-mortar and online used book stores, I guess.


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