Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Public Domain Day Thoughts on Public Domain Publishing

New Years marked the point where works from 1925 entered the public domain, including a few pretty famous ones such as The Great Gatsby.  

I was surprised to discover that some people actually consider works lapsing into public domain to be a bad thing, since it means that corporations (as in, publishers, movie adaptations, etc.) can make money from a book but the author's descendants no longer do.  Since this was a year when I had a book published, we published MrsDarwin's book ourselves, and we worked together to publish a re-print of a book which is out of copyright, I felt like talking about the topic a bit.

As the linked post explains:

Works from 1925 were supposed to go into the public domain in 2001, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years.  Now the wait is over.

This change in the laws was jokingly called the Mickey Mouse law, because one of the major lobbyists supporting it was Disney, which is considering the fact that the first Mickey Mouse cartoon was made in 1928.  

When a book comes out of copyright (when it goes into the public domain) it becomes possible for anyone to print and sell a copy without having to pay royalties to the author (or since copyright lasts 95 years, the author's heirs.)  That's precisely what we did when we reprinted Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson's book The Friendship of Christ.  The book was originally published in 1912.  The text was available for free on the internet in a scanned version with a number of typos.  MrsDarwin sat down with a copy of the original edition and corrected all of the errors in the scan.  She also updated the bible citations (which had both scanned badly because of Msgr. Benson's use of Roman numerals and also were based on the older numbering of the Psalms rather than the one used in modern Catholic bibles.)  Then we digitally typeset it and published it as both a paperback and and a Kindle book.  In order to do all this legally, we did not have to track down some heir of Msgr. Benson and get their permission.  Nor do any profits have to go to the author's heirs.  

Is that unfair?  I suppose it depends upon your point of view.  But here's the case I would make: We put about $100 in cash (buying a the rights to an image for cover art and a couple of ISBNs) and used money we'd already invested (in buying design and layout software) plus we put about 20 hours into getting the book ready to go.  That time is our free time, so in a sense it had not cost, but if you wanted to bring out an edition that wasn't a bad scan, you had to do it.  In return, we've as of today sold 30 ebooks and 59 paperbacks, a rate which I'm assuming is far above the normal number because our friends have been buying copies.  Maybe there's a steady rate of demand of 250 copies a year?  Nor does one make much money per copy.  For the 89 copies sold so far we've earned just under $200 in Amazon fees (which we will not actually receive for another couple months.)  So in return for our money and time investment, maybe we'll end up getting $500/yr for this book?  Not money to walk away from, but I don't think a commercial publisher would have considered it worth it.  And honestly, would I have done it if I'd had to track down whoever now owns the copyright to Msgr. Benson's work and get permission or pay that person royalties?  No, we'd probably just have walked away and searched up an nice old used copy.

There are, of course, a few cases where a work remains a valuable 'property' 95+ years after its original publication.  The Anne of Green Gables books, for instance, are reliable sellers which are mostly out of copyright.  The result is that there are some pretty junky editions out there where people are trying to cash in on the books' fame in order to make a comparatively easy buck.  I'm sure that the Tolkien Estate is thinking a good deal about these questions, since The Hobbit was originally published in 1937.

I have no objection to the Tolkien Estate continuing to make money off J. R. R. Tolkien's works.  And I'm sure they'd happily pay quite a bit of money to extend the copyright on his works past the 95 year mark.  But for a lot of lesser known authors (and even less known works by more famous authors) copyright long after the author's death results in non-availability. 

There's an interesting example which relates to Msgr. Benson's brother E. F. Benson, who wrote light, comedy of manners novels somewhat akin to P. G. Wodehouse.  Some of E. F. Benson's novels (the series about Mapp & Lucia) are pretty well known because they were made into a BBC series back in the 80s and again in 2014.  The Mapp & Lucia novels which are still in copyright are available from reputable publishers in modern editions, and the ones which are out of copyright are also available in hideous knockoff editions:

However, my personal favorite E. F. Benson novel, a stand-alone entitled Secret Lives written in 1932 and thus still in copyright, is out of print since a 1988 paperback edition (which is what my copy is.)

One the one hand, one is grateful that it hasn't seen the junky treatment being meted out to the public domain Benson works.  But on the other, it's comparatively unavailable.  There's no Kindle edition available at all, and used copies of the paperback start at over $20 on Amazon (ABEBooks is a better choice, with copies starting around $12.)  

As an author, I certainly want to be paid when people read my published works during my lifetime.  If I manage to eventually write something that lots of people buy, I wouldn't mind being able to leave the income steam to my children.  But at root, my deepest desire as an author is that people continue to read my works as long as possible.  I'd love people to still be reading me 100 years from now, and if letting the books lapse into public domain is what it takes to keep works available, I am very much in favor of it.  Not only does it result in people putting out economic new copies (though admittedly many of those are badly designed) but the full text becomes available and reachable online, which is a huge help for access.


Unknown said...

Dear Brendan,
You might think that, since I am a used-book dealer (as well as a used book-dealer), I would be in favor of ever-longer copyrights. I am not. There are now over a dozen reprint houses providing more or less reasonably priced editions--of varying quality--of out-of-copyright books. So for many, many books, one need not search out an original copy. This benefits all of us readers mightily: there has never been a better time to be a book buyer. To my mind, the big picture is that the advantage of easily available reprints far outweighs the value of owning the 1912 first of Friend of God. And anyone who wants the original edition can usually find it(insert plug for abebooks rather than amazon). Blessings, Andrew Welch

Darwin said...


One of the things that I think perhaps goes under appreciated is what really high quality print on demand technology has done for book availability. Large publishers as well as folks like us use it, and it frees them from having to make decisions about whether the demand for a backlist title will justify a print run. The result is that books don't have to go out of print once it's no longer profitable to do full print runs of them.

Michael said...

Sadly Abebooks is also owned by Amazon! I use, which searches many sites, including Biblio and Alibris, simultaneously.