Copyright Kills Middle-Aged Books

Yesterday the Atlantic ran an article called “The Hole in Our Collective Memory” about the impact of copyright on middle-aged books. In short it’s not good. Publishers are hesitant to put up books for sale a few years after they come out and the sales drop off rapidly until you get to public domain, at which point they spike again big-time.

But, of course, changes to copyright law have been steadily expanding the period of time before a creative work enters the public domain.

Extended copyrights do not benefit artists. They benefit the occasional estate holder and they benefit large corporations who depend on franchise IP for continued profit.

We need to reopen the copyright debate – but not with a concentration on tightening restrictions on fair use, nor on smacking down those evil pirates.

No, we need to reopen debates like when work should enter the public domain. I tend toward the “no more than 20 years” camp. And I don’t mean 20 years from the death of the artist, I mean 20 years from date of publication / initial distribution.

20 years is plenty of time to make money from one work of art. After all, do we all aspire to have exactly one book in us? What do you think about copyright? Let me know in the comments.


I have re-examined my position since this article was posted and now lean more toward life+20 years than 20 years full stop. Sometimes we need to admit when we’re wrong and I think I was when I wrote this.

Not afraid of pirates

Boing Boing recently posted an article about Penguin’s policy which restricts access to digital galley copies.

At the heart of the issue there are two items – the first is that the work of layout artists has value, and that layout and book design are value adds which publisher contribute above and beyond an author’s work.

As Doctrow did I can kind of buy that. But like Doctrow I agree that it’s a bit of a cop-out. That value add is one of the top reasons to have a publisher. Without publishers contributing that value we’d all probably be self-pub by now.

But, of course, the big elephant in the room is the risk of piracy.

If a galley gets out beforehand, especially one with little or no DRM the book could end up leaked. And once a book gets leaked there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Here’s the thing though. There’s basically three types of people who pirate stuff:

  1. People who will never buy your product. They might pirate it but they will never be customers. Them pirating your book doesn’t cost you any money because they weren’t ever going to buy it.
  2. People who might buy your product. This is the hardest category. Try-and-buy pirates might choose to buy the product, they might not. People in this category are the ones everybody worries about. My argument is that the best way to convert try-and-buy pirates into customers isn’t to use DRM. It’s the opposite. Make it easy for them to buy your product.┬áMake the product reasonably priced and put yourself out there enough for them to feel connected to the product creator. Don’t be a faceless machine.
  3. People who want to buy your product but can’t. This is your own fault. See above in point two on making it easy to buy the product. Develop your supply chain to get the product into their hands.

So either pirates are non-customers or prospects. Why are we punishing prospective customers out of spite about non-customers?

So, yeah, I’m not worried about pirates. And the truth is that Penguin probably shouldn’t be either.

P.S. Belated props to Tor/Forge books for going DRM free.