In a discussion over at Ordinary Times about banned books, Zic made the following comment:

There is another form of banning: limiting availability. I’ve spent a lot of time searching out out-of-print books; I own several collections; the White Mountains and mountaineering/hiking in general, field guides, gardening, knitting, cooking, science fiction.

When books go out of print, they become rare and elusive, they’re banned from general public access (with the exceptions of inter-library loans, Thanks Maribou!)

While this is obviously not a “ban” in the same sense as banned books, it is a significant hindrance of access that has a larger and deeper effect on availability than actual attempts to ban books in the more traditional sense.

bigballofstringOne of Lain’s favorite books is A Big Ball of String. It was written in 1958 and incorporated into Dr Seuss’s “Beginners Series.” The plot involves a young boy who wants to gather a big ball of string, and having gathered it, has an adventure trying to figure out how to do. It’s snappy in the Seussian manner, and I really like it because it prizes childhood imagination and ingenuity.

The book looks like it is long out of print. As you can see if you followed the previous link, it sells from $23 for a heavily used copy, to over $650 for a “new” copy (by which I assume they mean in its original packaging.

Why is this book no longer available? Well, there are two potential reasons. The first is that it simply didn’t sell very well. The second is that one of the subplots involves a toy gun, which may not be kosher with some parents and may garner bad publicity (which starts sounding just a bit like corporate censorship).

On the first count, that used to hold more sway than it currently does. This day in age, between ebooks and print-on-demand, low sales shouldn’t be the barrier that it once was. It’s also noteworthy that this was a book written fifty years ago. The fact that it’s still held in copyright, by a publisher that (assuming it’s not the toy gun) that has no interest in it, represents something aggravating about copyright law. Even if we grant a right to near-perpetuity when it comes to profiting off creative works, in cases like this they seem to actually have no interest in it. But since it’s still under copyright, nobody else can, either.


Category: Market

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11 Responses to Book Banned By Copyright!

  1. fillyjonk says:

    I see similar problems with some academic tomes. I’ve got a particular book on invertebrate identification on my ‘watch list,’ but because few copies were ever printed (apparently), they’re hard to find and they approach $300 in cost, used, which I just can’t do.

    Google Books works for SOME things but they don’t have everything, and of course, they hold back certain pages on stuff still under copyright, so you can’t read the whole book there.

    Interlibrary loan works for stuff you want to read once and not see again, but for something like an identification book, I really want my own copy.

    Still, I wouldn’t consider it “banning” so much as, I don’t know, some kind of market force.

    (Incidentally, your page is loading VERY slowly for me; other pages do not. Don’t know if it’s something with your host or what)

    • Trumwill says:

      Thanks for the heads up on the load times. I’m not experiencing it. I don’t know what’s going on.

      I think what Google is doing with regard to orphan works is really interesting. They’re in a position to say “If whoever it is can’t be bothered to contact us to take it down, we’re going to assume it’s an orphan work.” And they have the legal team to deal with it.

      (On the other hand, I’ve heard that they might start asserting the copyright on orphan works that they pick up. I don’t know how they can do that. I don’t know if they are.)

      • fillyjonk says:

        Yeah, I wouldn’t put it past Google to hoover up all the “orphan works” they could find and then claim they own the copyright. (I think they dropped the “don’t” part of their ‘don’t be evil’ slogan a few years back)

        I wonder if there will ever be a move to pull “public domain” stuff OUT of the public domain, and how that would go in court. I know little about copyright so I don’t know if that’s already been done or has been deemed illegal or whatever.

        • Trumwill says:

          Already been done, and signed off on the courts. That is, the owner recouping his, her, or its copyright. It hasn’t been the case that a company like Google can assert the copyright of something they didn’t produce or purchase.

          That does happen with trademarks, though. There is a character named Black Terror that went into the public domain. Dynamic Entertainment made a Black Terror series, registered the trademark, and now if I want to use Black Terror I would likely need to change his name or be really creative about it.

          This’ll be an issue for Superman, if he ever goes into the public domain. I’ll be able to use the character and origin story, but I wouldn’t be able to use the name Superman because that is trademarked, and the costume would be iffy. If you take away Superman, Clark Kent, Metropolis, Lois Lane, and so on… you’re not actually left with much. And trademarks are perpetual (as long as they are in use).

  2. Abel Keogh says:

    Generally the copyright is held by the author but the rights to publish and distribute the book are held by the publisher–usually for the life of the copyright. So even if an author owns the copyright, the publisher can do nothing with the book and there’s little the author can do about it.

    This is why more and more authors are choosing to self publish because they don’t have to worry about a publisher deciding a book is no longer worth selling. Not only can they control it’s availability but pricing as well. That’s the main reason I bought the rights to my memoir back from my publisher–they had no interest in marketing it and the prices online were too high for readers to take a chance on. Now I’m in control and as a result have sold more books and made more fans in the last year than I did the first 6 years when it was sold by a publisher.

    • Trumwill says:

      That’s really interesting, Abel. I plugged your book over at OT (If I’d known ahead of time, I would have done a more complete treatment) and wasn’t actually sure of the rights issue. I commented that it was originally published through a publisher, or something to that effect. Which is an unfortunate advantage of publishers, a shield of modest capability. (You don’t need them to produce a good product, but it becomes an easier sell with them.)

      If you can’t republish something, in what sense do you own the copyright? (This is a genuine question, I’m unfamiliar with the intricacies.) Is it a matter of royalty payments?

      Or is it a matter of trademarks? I know a couple published authors who turned around and changed titles and character names to self-publish. Is that someone who theoretically owned the copyright to his book, but couldn’t do anything with it as-is?

      • Abel Keogh says:

        Thanks for the plug. That was much appreciated.

        Copyright is just intellectual property protection. I can write a book, never show it to anyone else, but still copyright it. It gives me legal recourse if someone plagiarizes the book or sells it without authorization. Unless the book is a work for hire type of deal, publishers purchase the rights to distribute and sell the book. As an author you never want to sell world-wide rights to a publisher. Usually you just sell them US print and ebook rights and then sell rights to Canada, UK, Australia, etc. to other publishers or divisions of the same publisher. One of the benefits of self pubbing is that I own all the worldwide rights to my work so my books are in Amazon UK, CA, etc. If someone likes one of my books and wants to buy the German rights, I have the option of selling those. (Lots of self pubbed authors who have best sellers on Amazon generally get an agent just in order to sell foreign rights while keeping the US rights to themselves.)

        Back in the day it was common for publishing contracts to have an out of print clause where all printing and distribution rights to the book would revert to the author once whatever definition of “out of print” was met. However, these clauses got phased out for most authors and publishers over the years. They’re starting to come back, however, thanks to self publishing. But most authors who don’t have that in their contracts are frustrated because they have a book that may be 3, 5, or 10 years old and their publisher’s just sitting on it and no one is making any money on it.

        I do know some authors who have publishing contracts that are older than 10 years or so and they don’t include ebook rights. These authors are free to sell ebook versions of their work and there’s nothing the publisher can do about it.

        Were I to ever sign a contract with a publisher in the future, there would have to be a return of rights clause either after a certain number of years or after sales dipped below a certain point for, say, two consecutive quarters.

        • trumwill says:

          I do know some authors who have publishing contracts that are older than 10 years or so and they don’t include ebook rights. These authors are free to sell ebook versions of their work and there’s nothing the publisher can do about it.

          That surprises me.

          Not that the contracts don’t include ebook rights, but that there wasn’t some inclusive language that covered “competitive items” or somesuch.

  3. Abel Keogh says:

    One final thought: I wonder if the author (or the heirs) of A BIG BALL OF STRING are still alive. Unless they signed an updated contract in the last couple years granting ebook rights to the publisher, there’s no reason they couldn’t put out their own ebook version of the book.

  4. SFG says:

    Amusingly, this is the way Bavaria supposedly kept Mein Kampf off the market in Germany; they held the copyrights and refused to publish any copies. Of course, you can find it on the Internet.

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