TechDirt usefully notes that things are even worse than pictured. While copyright protection extends back to the 1920s, that's only for works where the rights-holder has renewed his copyright. Rights to most works aren't renewed. But it isn't always easy to figure out whether or not the rights-holder has renewed the rights, and getting it wrong can be costly. Masnick writes:
Copyright is a good thing. But not at its current duration or its current scope.This is something most copyright supporters ignore: entering the public domain can actually renew the value of art, and can (and does) stimulate the economy by allowing others to exploit additional commercial value from a work beyond what was possible under copyright. The commercial usefulness of a monopoly on a book has a shorter shelf-life than the monopoly actually granted by copyright law. Based on Patry's findings, that shelf life is somewhere under 28 years, otherwise more people would have renewed their registration—but copyright lasts much longer than 28 years. Thus you get the giant gulf on Heald's chart: in between the pre-1923 public domain books and the books that are new enough to still be actively sold, there are several decades of titles that are no longer worth anything to their rightsholders, but can't be offered by anyone else because they are still effectively under copyright.Yes, just effectively—not actually. As you may have noticed, there seems to be a contradiction here: if the majority of copyright registrations went un-renewed, then the majority of books published between 1923 and 1963 have lapsed into the public domain alongside the books from 1922 and earlier, so the drop-off in Heald's chart should be much, much smaller. This is not a conflict in the data, it's a symptom another massive and entirely separate problem with copyright law which I discussed in a recent post: the difficulty of determining a work's status.
*An incomplete summary: Marginal Revolution, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Rebecca Rosen [made the most popular on The Atlantic's front page on the Saturday after posting], Brian Doherty, Kevin Kelly, and FAIR. It's hit Memeorandum, Reddit, Hacker News, The Glittering Eye, the CEI's Open Economy Blog, Politikon, and LISNews. Topsy tracks the tweets; here are the +Ripples. And TechDirt and Information Liberation and Right to Read and Habr. At 15000 post views and counting, if the click-through rate to Offsetting from the other sources is maybe 5%, then multiply my views by 20 to get a ballpark audience of 300k.