Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A hardcover fiction book usually seems to cost about $25 at a bookstore - maybe a little more, counting tax, and the MSRP may be higher if it's a popular book, but then again maybe less if it's on sale or from a discount seller. A paperback book costs about $8, again with some variation. In e-book format, the prices for new books are similar, maybe a buck or two cheaper. There's something weird, though: while prices seem pretty consistent for conventional books regardless of age, for e-book editions of books first published more than 90 years ago, prices top out at about $2*. If I want cost-effective entertainment, it's easy to do the math.

All this is because of how copyright law works. To make a long story short, once upon a time, works of intellectual property were held by their creators for several decades during which they alone could legally profit from them, and then "fell into the public domain," meaning that anyone could use it. But to protect the profitability of companies like Disney, copyright is almost eternal these days. It would raise Constitutional questions and start an incredibly complicated debate if Congress every actually passed a law saying "copyright shall no longer expire" or retroactively granted copyrights to something already in the public domain, but they get around that by extending it for just 10 or 20 years at a time**.

Smarter, better educated and more monomaniac people than I have had a lot to say about this, but I got to thinking about it in a bookstore over the weekend***, and I began wondering just what it'll mean in the long run.

I'm not even talking about government IP policy or the viability of bookstores at the moment. How's it going to affect me if I start spending so much time reading such old stuff? Maybe venerable classics, maybe just pulp fiction from way, way back, but either way, stuff written before the existence of television or women in Congress. I already feel left behind by culture and technology now and then; am I actually going to regress?

And how's it going to affect culture in general? Intellectuals of all kinds have always stood on the shoulders of giants, but it seems weird that there's a dividing line of a specific year before which you can freely reuse content, but after which you can only be "inspired" by it. Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was almost unique the way it throws together characters created by a dozen different writers****. That kind of thing can never be sold using anything published after the magical year of 1923.

* Project Gutenberg and similar services make public domain books completely free, but it took me a while to find that and sometimes I've wanted to buy something on the spur of the moment, and e-book software makes it trivially easy to download from the content provider, so why not pay a buck or two.
** It's too complicated for me to understand all the details, and even if I understood them it's too complicated for a blog post, but I think that's basically accurate.
*** The one mentioned here, oddly enough. It's kind of funny, because I've only been there twice and I've been to other bookstores half a dozen times since then - several dozen times, if comic book stores count - but both times resulted in deep thoughts and blog posts. Maybe there really is something irreplacable about jumbled, idiosyncratic bookstores. Or then again, maybe it's just the reputation of that relatively famous place getting to me.
**** Yet again, it's more complicated than that, but anyways.

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