The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish
[Via – Rebecca J. Rosen – The Atlantic]
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.
I am more likely to read a new edition from 100 years ago than I am to read a new edition from 1970. I am more likely to hear a song written 150 years ago than one written 50.
Copyright creates a valley of death for many works.
Recent works are not being published in new editions while older ones are.
It was easier to find a new edition of a book from 1880 than one from1930. The researcher who worked on this wrote:
Copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability, Shortly after works are created and proprietized, they tend to disappear from public view only to reappear in significantly increased numbers when they fall into the public domain and lose their owners.
He also found the same sort of valley due to copyright from songs. He looked at movie soundtracks, because this always necessitates a new ‘edition’ of the music. He and his assistants searched the Internet Movie Data Base for songs form the soundtracks of the top 100 grossing movies of all time (adjusted for ticket prices).
They ended up with over 800 songs that they then examined for date of publication. He found that, again there was a valley, with songs in the public domain that were 80 years old much more frequent than those 60 years old.
Fully 25% of the songs used in the most popular movies of all time were in the public domain when the movie was made. That seemed high so they looks at the songs from a random sample of movies, which would include a lot of ‘art’ house movies that few people saw.
Only 8% of the songs in this group were from the public domain. Why would really popular movies, ones for which paying royalties would be a small fraction of the cost, use more songs that were not under copyright?
It turned out that the answer to this question came from ‘problems’ with the databases used. The list of top grossing movies from BoxOfficeMojo had a median release date of 1977. For the random 100 movie sample, the median age was 2002. The reason for this is that the database was biased towards recent movies.
Obviously, getting the box office results for obscure movies would be hard. The only data from old movies would be the big ones because that would become public information. But no one reported the grosses of small movies until recently.
The authors then understood why the movies with an average age of 1977 had more movies that were in the public domain. Because of changes in copyright laws, they did not have to go back as many years to get access to public domain songs. GOing back 60 years would get them access to public domain songs.
For newer movies, the time is closer to 90 to get to public domain. This was also supported when the songs form the 100 top grossing movies.
The 50% that were made before 1977 (the median time) had 76% of the public domain songs. Those made after 1977 had only 24%.
This is a nice demonstration that due to modern copyright, it is much harder to get access to works from even a generation ago. So access to artistic works gets ver skewed to the recent.