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What Happens When Books Enter the Public Domain? Testing Copyright’s Underuse Hypothesis across Australia, New Zealand, The United States and Canada


Jacob Flynn, Rebecca Giblin and François Petitjean

A key justification for copyright term extension has been that exclusive rights encourage publishers to make older works available (and that, without them, works will be ‘underused’). We empirically test this hypothesis by investigating the availability of ebooks to public libraries across Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. We find that titles are actually less available where they are under copyright, that competition apparently does not deter commercial publishers from investing in older works, and that the existence of exclusive rights is not enough to trigger investment in works with low commercial demand. Further, works are priced much higher when under copyright than when in the public domain. In sum, simply extending copyrights results in higher prices and worse access. We argue that nations should explore alternative ways of allocating copyrights to better achieve copyright’s fundamental aims of rewarding authors and promoting widespread access to knowledge and culture.

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(2019) 42(4) UNSWLJ 1215: