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March 18, 2014
Why Did Copyright Shape Music and Books Differently Online?
This is the question posed by Paul J. Heald of the University of Illinois (PDF link). Heald's research shows that the majority of uniquely named musical songs from the previous century are available in digital form on places such as YouTube (70% of public domain and 77% of copyrighted). But when you go to look at ebooks, the story is starkly different: 94% of popular books from the early part of the 1900s up to 1923 are available and after that you're pretty much out of luck.
1923 is the publication year for volumes that still fall under copyright - the hole in our collective mind that begins there. But if copyright was the whole answer you'd expect to see a similar gap in availability for other works like music that are still covered by copyright. Since we don't see such a gap the question is why?
Heald's theories, as covered by Rebecca Rosen for The Atlantic, are two-fold:
First, music is both easier to "produce" - that is, convert into easily accessible digital form - and "consume" since any browser or mobile device will hook you up to iTunes or YouTube. By contrast, creating an e-book is still a fair bit of work and you often need a specialized reader or app to consume the e-book.
Second, Heald points to two cases that caused a split in how copyright was applied to the two media. In 2002, the case Random House v. Rosetta Books established that publishers need authorial permission to create e-books, particularly when reprinting older works. By contrast Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers, Ltd. v. The Walt Disney Company found that publishers - in that case Disney - did not need a special license to convert music to a new form.
Heald's belief is that reform of copyright laws would lead to a surge in publication of older e-books. Given that his data show a high availability of pre-1923 books in electronic form, he argues that the production and consumption barriers aren't really that significant. Publishers are in the business of selling books that people want to read and even if it's not true for all volumes, it's still likely that publishers would find literature that was worth the investment to produce.
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