You’ve long suspected it, and now here’s an academic study to prove it: Copyright actually makes books disappear.

“A random sample of new books for sale on Amazon.com shows three times more books initially published in the 1850’s are for sale than new books from the 1950’s. Why? This paper presents new data on how copyright seems to make works disappear,” runs the abstract of the study, How Copyright Makes Books and Music Disappear (and How Secondary Liability Rules Help Resurrect Old Songs), by Professor Paul J. Heald (pictured at left), of the University of Illinois College of Law, and visiting professor at the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management (CIPPM) at Britain’s Bournemouth University.

The full text of the paper can be found here.copyright

Heald’s study tests the justification for copyright extension, increasingly popular in the media industry, “that after a work is created, it needs to be protected for a significant period of time to assure its continued availability and distribution.

In the words of one commentator, a work may need “proper husbandry” in order to assure its continued exploitation. Powerful copyright lobbyists presently circle the globe advocating ever longer terms of copyright protection based on this under-exploitation hypothesis—that bad things happen when a copyright expires, the work loses its owner, and it falls into the public domain.”

For his study, Heald took “a random sample of 2300 new books for sale on Amazon.com,” also performing a similar analysis on music. “Copyright status correlates highly with absence from the Amazon shelf,” he concluded. “Together with publishing business models, copyright law seems to stifle distribution and access.”

Heald, admittedly, has been plowing this furrow for quite a few years now, quoting his own earlier papers from years ago in this study.

This time around, however, he’s employing a new methodological take that completely reinforces his earlier conclusions. He used statistical techniques to compensate for effects such as the growth in population of the United States and the volume of books published.

The results only made the impact of copyright even more pronounced.

Furthermore, Heald demonstrates that publishers are only damaging their own businesses by delaying the admission of works into the public domain. Even copyright-free, such works actually get sold, as his data proves. These are not Project Gutenberg freebies: Those works are offered on the Amazon shelves for sale. But publishers lack incentive to shift long-tail backlist titles, which tend to languish neglected in the copyright warehouse. Once in the public domain, however, they flourish.

From Heald’s conclusion:

“The data presented in this article demonstrate that there is a market for these missing works, illustrated bluntly by the fact that there are three times as many new books from the 1850’s for sale on Amazon than books from the 1950’s. Ever-longer term extensions exacerbate the availability and distribution crisis by delaying the moment when the market can intervene and restart production.”

The White House Task Force on High-Tech Patent Issues has been pushing for reform to U.S. intellectual property law in the realm of patents to re-energize American innovation. Is it any surprise that similar regulations in the area of copyright have equally stultifying effects on cultural productivity? Heald’s report is just one more stone in the balance weighing against Big Media’s specious and self-interested campaign for copyright limit extension.

Set the works free. Ultimately, even the IP monopolists can only gain.