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The Cost of Copyright Revisited: A new study expands research on the public domain to Nordic markets

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The Cost of Copyright Revisited: A new study expands research on the public domain to Nordic markets

By 12 July 2022July 14th, 2022No Comments

Post by Paul Heald (Albert J. Harno & Edward W. Cleary Chair in Law at the University of Illinois School of Law). Paul Heald is a CREATe fellow and recently contributed to the 21 for 2021 project, with a blog on ‘Term of Copyright: Optimality and Reality’.

A number of empirical studies (many of them supported by CREATe) measure how extended copyright terms negatively affect the number of book titles in print.  Simply put, public domain titles are generally more available in new editions than copyrighted books from the same era.  Additional studies also show that the price of copyrighted bound volumes, ebooks, and audio book editions is significantly higher than their public domain counterparts.

All research to date, however, has been conducted in large English language book markets.  A new study (The Cost of Copyright Revisited:  Identifying Competition Effects in Small Markets) measures the availability and pricing of books (bound, ebook, and audiobook) in two small, non-English book markets:  Finland and Sweden.

The Nordic data does not perfectly track earlier findings from US, UK, and Canadian markets.  First, public domain status is not associated with increased availability in Sweden.  Public domain titles there are no more likely to be in print than copyright titles.  Second, although copyrighted books are more expensive in Finland and Sweden than public domain books, the price difference is not as pronounced as in English language markets.

Why is a strongly positive “public domain effect” muted in these two smaller markets?  The new study offers two related explanations.  First, independent publishers in English language markets can use free Kindle Direct Publishing platform to format, publish, and market books in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Germany Amazon markets but not to Swedish or Finnish customers.  Without direct and easy access to Swedish and Finnish markets, independent publishers may be under-incentivized to exploit the public domain:

“A quick comparison of the exploitation of English and Swedish language titles by independent publishers mining the Project Gutenberg free public domain library supports the hypothesis that lack of access to Amazon publishing platforms affects the market.  We took a sample of 109 Swedish titles available for free on Project Gutenberg and found that only 21% were available as bound volumes and 16% were available as ebooks on [the most prominent seller of Swedish books]  In a sample of 100 English language titles from Project Gutenberg, 87% were available as bound volumes and 85% as ebooks on (93% were available as either bound or ebook).”

Second, independent publishers have access to the digital files of millions of English language books through the Google Books Project.  No major library in Sweden or Finland has been digitized yet by Google, which means that a treasure trove of free titles has not yet become available to independent publishers who might enter the market.

To conclude, legal status (public domain v. copyrighted) matters but so does access to markets.  In the absence of the tools necessary to foster robust competition, the public domain seems to play a less dramatic role in books markets.