How Long Should Copyrights Be For?

Consider the extremely interesting graph in this post, courtesy of Tyler Cowen. I think that it suggests that copyrights for books, at least, should be 25 years, non-renewable. Making it longer does not seem to do a great deal for sales but does keep them out of view which would seem to be the opposite of what you might want.

Ironically, the original Copyright Act of 1790 provided for a 14 year copyright renewable for 14, which would seem to be optimal.

16 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    I’d be good with that.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Heading to the beach with a couple of books by A. Merritt, I have to wonder if perhaps, just perhaps books from a hundred years ago were just better in many ways (no offense michael).

  • They didn’t have as many typos.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Well, 100 years ago there was no Young Adult — most of what I write.

    100 years culls the weakest books. It’s like listening to classic rock and believing it was all better. Nah, time has just winnowed the list.

  • I hadn’t considered that, Michael.

    Are you finding that YA is filling up? I picked up a book by Harlan Coben the other day; he’s entering the field. Janet Evanovitch, Carl Hiaasen — seems everyone is dipping into the market.

  • Heading to the beach with a couple of books by A. Merritt

    Now you’re starting to talk my lingo. I own practically all of his books in first editions. The Moon Pool, The Ship of Ishtar, Seven Footprints to Satan,, The Fox Woman and One Other.

  • Michael Reynolds Link


    Everyone and his maiden aunt is in YA now. A few huge hits like Hunger Games draw the opportunity-seekers. I’m still getting published – I have four books coming out this year. So I’m not squeezed out. Yet.

  • 100 years culls the weakest books. It’s like listening to classic rock and believing it was all better. Nah, time has just winnowed the list.

    A very good point to keep in mind.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m taking The Moon Pool and The Ship of Ishtar, both might be reproductions of first editions, assembled by fans of the work. The Ishtar has some very nice illustrations, a big naughty.

    I think the chart does reflect the copyrights, but it is probably prodded by the IP holders pushing some last yields on the rights. I have to wonder if that’s why there is a John Carter movie out. I think its certainly why a Conan movie was released last year.

  • I have to wonder if that’s why there is a John Carter movie out.

    Nah. A Princess of Mars was first published in 1917. It’s been off copyright for a while. I’ve got a first of that, too.

    After your first comment I went and took a look at my shelf. I’d forgotten The Face in the Abyss. Of all of Merritt’s work The Moon Pool is probably the best.

    Since this verges into one of my hobbies (fantasy and science fiction 1850-1950), I’ll give some recommendations. More in the direction of high adventure: H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, Edgar Rice Burroughs. More in the direction of high fantasy: Dunsany or Cabell. More in the direction of supernatural/suspense: Sax Rohmer. More in the direction of science fiction (other than Wells and Verne, of course): George Allan England, M. P. Shiel.

    That’s all pre-1920s stuff that should be readily available online. I think there’s a lot of those authors that’s available at no charge for most formats of eReaders.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I don’t know the shape or precise form of the Burroughs Estate, but I can sense its presence in the lawsuits they continue to file.

    I read a lot of complaints about the quality of the scans used in the public domain stuff, whether on eReaders or print to order. I bought the two Merritts because they look like they were assembled by fans, and don’t feel that $10-$20 is a modest sum. Now, buying out of print editions at multiples of that is not something I’m personally interested, but many do. If I were to look for free downloads, I think I’d start by looking at the fan websites.

    The estate of Robert E Howard, and to a lesser extent Clark Ashton Smith, have placed new editions based upon original, previously unpublished, text (which I believe extends the rights as to the particular text), and the Howards have a movie production company that has sold a lot of rights to his stuff, but only two so far have made it to theatres. I can’t but help see these as moves by the estate as the work enters public domain. There are some other authors, whose work is not readily available, as the heirs are trying to negotiate their best, last price.

    Anyway, I’ll start with the Moon Pool.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    The rush to YA demonstrates how numerous the modestly-talented-but-unimaginative commercialists are in the literary world. They go wherever the money is and pump out book after book with the same plot, same two dimensional characters and same incompetence in understanding how humans actually work. When that dries up they jump to the next cash cow.

    I don’t know how Michael’s books will hold up over the long haul, but he’s an artist because he’s willing to try new things and actually develop his characters, risking alienation of readers that often become upset when something fundamental changes from one book to the next. His passion for the material is also obvious.

    FYI I am not Michael’s publicist and will not receive any form of remuneration for polishing his boots as I did above.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Thanks, Ben. Cool of you to say so.

  • While we’ve got your attention, Michael, do you have any observations on The Hunger Games, now that it’s been adapted for the big screen? I’m unlikely to read the book or see the movie. Like Sin City, I think it’s too pagan for my tastes.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I haven’t been able to see HG yet. I’m still on book tour and, as you know, book tour nights are spent getting drunk on tiny bottles of minibar whiskey.

    But I have the greatest possible enthusiasm for the movie. I want it to do very, very well. One of the people working to create a GONE movie is the wife of HG director Gary Ross. She also produced Pleasantville and Sea Biscuit, IIRC.

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