The Economics of Memory: How Copyright Decides Which Books Do (and Don’t) Become Classics
- Stephen M. Maurer, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley
- Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper: GSPP15-001 (April 2015)
Legal scholars usually analyze copyright as an incentive and sometime obstacle to creation. This encourages us to see publishers as middlemen who siphon off rents that would be better spent on authors. By comparison, recent social science research emphasizes that word-of-mouth markets are highly imperfect. This means that many deserving titles will never find readers unless some publisher takes the trouble to market them. But this second view is deeply subversive. After all, the need for publishers – and reward – does not end when a book is published. At least in principle, copyright should last forever.
The trouble with this argument is that it assumes what ought to be proven. How much effort do publishers really invest in finding forgotten titles? And does vigorous marketing attract more readers than high copyright prices deter? This article looks for answers in the history of 20th Century print publishers and today’s Print-on-Demand and eBook markets. We argue that, far from promoting dissemination, copyright frequently operates to suppress works that would otherwise erode the price of new titles. This pathology has gotten dramatically worse in the Age of eBooks. Meanwhile, public domain publishers are facing their own crisis. Mid-20th Century books had large up-front costs. This deterred copyists. By comparison, digital technologies make it easy for copyists to enter the market. This has suppressed profits to the point where many public domain publishers spend little or nothing on forgotten titles.
The article concludes by reviewing possible reforms. Partial solutions include clarifying antitrust law so that firms have more freedom to implement price discrimination; modifying copyright so that consumers can re-sell used eBooks; letting on-line markets limit the number of publishers allowed to post redundant public domain titles on their sites; and strengthening non-commercial institutions for finding, curating, and delivering quality titles to readers.