Five things the USA can do to help e-books stimulate the economy

Five things the USA can do to help e-books stimulate the economy

Nobody does media like the USA.

Yes, Bollywood releases more movies every year.  Yes, a lot of our TV shows are based on British shows. 

But American media is a huge economic force worldwide. 

It’s even bootlegged where governments try to keep it out.

Books are part of that…and we are leading the way in e-books, the publishing of the future (and increasingly, of the present).

There are challengers in other countries…but we should make sure we seize this opportunity.

What steps can the US take to encourage the growth of this industry and American dominance?

1. Establish orphan book legislation

Right now, the market is hungry for content…and becoming more so, in my opinion.

Books that are in the public domain are getting converted, but those are often made available for free.  That’s not a big plus for the economy, although it can help sell EBRs (E-Book Readers).  People can make money from public domain books, because they can be released with DRM (Digital Right Management). 

The engine, though, is fueled by books that are under copyright.  When paperbook rights are being negotiated now, you can bet that e-book rights are part of it.

The issue is books that are still under copyright…but with whom there is no one to negotiate.  If a book hasn’t fallen into the public domain, you currently can’t publish it without getting permission from the rightsholder.

But what if you can’t contact the rightsholder?  What if the book was published in 1950 and the author has died with no estate?

“Orphan book” legislation would allow a publisher which has done due diligence to try to find someone to publish a book (if it isn’t already in the market) to do so and make a profit from it.  They’d have to pay royalties to somebody who showed up and proved a claim.

It might surprise some of you that I would support that…I didn’t support the Google settlement as originally constructed.

This is something that could be done fairly and get a lot more books into the market.

2. Establish that it is okay to digitize books that you bought for your own use…and encourage development of scanning technology

Right now, many people assume it is okay to scan a book you own in paper and digitize it.  There isn’t anything that says that, although it seems reasonable.  Why would that help?  Wouldn’t that cut down on sales?

It would make sales for those machines!   VCRs were a big deal, and other recording devices have been (like Tivo). 

It would have to be much easier than it is now.  You’d have to be able to stick a paperbook in there and have it end up with a searchable file…without destroying the paperbook.  We’re not close to that as this point.

Developing the machines would also have them used by people digitizing books to sell them…the process of digitizing is probably holding up quite a few backlist books.  An author who owns the rights to a book she or he wrote, and doesn’t have an electronic copy, would be a serious market.

3. Prohibit blocking text-to-speech access

This almost happened this year, but it sounds like the presentation just wasn’t well done.  The precedent is there: the Copyright Office already requires that one version of every e-book have “read aloud”. 

Why would this matter?

Text-to-speech opens the market for those people with print challenges that do not reach the legal level of a disability.  There are a lot of those people!  It also means that people with print disabilities who are now waiting and getting a book free will choose to pay for it.

I wouldn’t require that publishers provide it…just that they don’t block it when someone else provides it (which is the case with the Kindle). 

Would this cut into audiobook sales, making a net loss?

I doubt it.  Even if it did, I think the market provided by text-to-speech would be greater than the audiobook sales it would reduce.  I’m just guessing on that, but I’m pretty confident.

4. End the Agency Model

Competition is good for business, good for sales.  I don’t think eliminating price competition amongst the former rivals is good.  It takes a lot of the spark out of it.  While discounting reduces profit margins, it creates excitement and sales.  I know the argument can be made that having the Wii cost the same everywhere hasn’t hurt it.  However, this is content…that’s a different story.  I don’t mind publishers selling on their own…I don’t mind them having sales agents.  I just don’t like them compelling all of the major sellers to be sales agents. 

5. Straighten out copyright

There are a number of things to be done here.  We need to get more backlist books available.  One thing that holds that up is that we don’t have an online database we can search to see if a book is in the public domain or not.  We have an incomplete one, but we need them all.  The records exist, they just need to get online.

We need to simplify the current copyright laws.  Get rid of the requirements for books prior to 1978 to have had the right copyright statement and to have been renewed.  Go ahead and grandfather editions that are already out there.  It’s ridiculous that Night of the Living Dead fell into the public domain because they put the copyright notice on the title screen, and then the distributor changed the name and they lost the copyright.  If you’ve already put out a book that was in the public domain at the time, fine.  But if you want to do it after the law is changed, you have to pay. 

Work on standardizing international copyright.  It’s time for another international agreement on it.  I don’t like the “Life Plus” scheme, because it makes it too hard to figure out whether a book is in copyright or not.  At the least, require that the Copyright Office be able to tell us when a given book will fall into the public domain.

I’d consider extending copyright terms, making them longer.  That’s a hot potato, though…even though it’s been done several times already.  Since keeping an electronic book “in print” costs very little…so a license could more easily be used for a longer time.  For more thoughts on that, see this earlier post.


There are five ideas for you, USA.  One thing you may notice I didn’t say: start or increase collecting sales tax on them.  In California, e-books delivered electronically aren’t sales taxed (at least, I know they weren’t last year). 

However, e-books already generate taxes in California.  Author’s royalties are taxed.  Publishers’ and retailers’ profits are taxed.  You don’t have to add sales taxes to make money from e-book sales.

What do you think?  Would ending the Agency Model be a mistake, since it’s raised the prices of bestselling e-books…and they’ve still done phenomenally well?  Is not allowing the blocking of text-to-speech unreasonable…and would it affect so few people it doesn’t matter?   Would more free e-books sell more EBRs…meaning that copyright terms should be shorter, not longer?  Is orphan book legislation unfair to copyright holders?  Feel free to let me know what you think.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

10 Responses to “Five things the USA can do to help e-books stimulate the economy”

  1. Five things the USA can do to help e-books stimulate the economy » Legal News Talk Says:

    […] Read more: Five things the USA can do to help e-books stimulate the economy […]

  2. Kathy Johnson Says:

    Hi Mr. Calvin,
    I really enjoy reading your blog very much and didn’t know where to go to make a few comments to you. I was thinking about my days in school and high school and I wish I could have had my Kindle back then. I was always stuck packing a heavy pile of books around which was hard on my but also bad for my back. Can you imagine if the students had all their books on one Kindle how much easier it could have been for us. Well one good thing is that it’s not too later for the students of today. That would be a good source of money for the company to sell to schools and colleges.

    Thanks for listening.

    Katherine Johnson

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Kathy!

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Yes, the use of e-textbooks and EBRs (E-Book Readers) is beginning now. California has mandated that certain high school textbooks have to be available in e-versions.

      The current generation of EBRs isn’t the friendliest for that, but there will undoubtedly be ones that work well with graphs and other images in the next few years.

  3. Bruce Napier Says:


    I don’t see the problem with life plus. Most countries have PMA+70, and standardising on that would make it easy to check for copyright. When did the author die, was that less than 70 years ago?

    I’m afraid it’s the States and Canada (and Oz?) that are out of line for once ;-}}}



    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Bruce!

      For me, there are two main problems with Life Plus.

      First, it’s inherently ageist. An author who publishes a book at the age of twenty-five is statistically much more likely to have longer protection for the book than an author who published a book at the age of ninety-five. That’s simply unfair.

      Second, it is often difficult to find out when an author died. Oh, not in the case of a well-known author, of course, but the vast majority of books (and magazines and “fanzines” and so on) are written by people who won’t have a Wikipedia entry. 😉 It needs to be that you buy an old book at a garage sale and can tell easily if that book is in the public domain or not. Ideally, the copyright expiration date would have been printed in books…but that date has changed over time, so that can’t be done. It shouldn’t be that complicated…it costs money to do the research

      The United States has Life+70…if the books were published after 1977. Canada is Life+50, Australia splits it with the death year of the author (if the death was before 1955, it is Life+50…if it wasn’t, it’s Life+70).

      I believe Life+50 is a more common term than Life+70 in the world.

      Europe tends to be Life+70 (France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and so on). South America tends to be Life+70 (Brazil, Agentina, Chile).

      Africa and Asia tend to be Life+50 (Burundi, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Hong Kong).

      However, there are lots of individual variations…and other terms as well. In my geographical neighborhood, Mexico has Life+100 (but only for works published since mid 2003).

      America is more in line with Europe…for books published after 1977. Canada clearly seems to be an outlier, but iit’s very complex.

      I’d want to look at universal permanent copyright, personally, but that’s not going to happen. If not that, a discrete term (like 100 years) would cut down on administrative costs considerably.

  4. tuxgirl Says:

    I still think that shrinking copyright term and allowing (via a low-ish cost) indefinite renewal is the best option. If done with a good database, it allows people to easily view the current state of the copyright, makes disney happy (so that their lobbyists will stop making the problem worse, and solves the orphan book problem. (If a book only has to wait 25 years before falling into the public domain if the author isn’t preventing that, then orphans are likely to survive).

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, tuxgirl!

      That’s something worth considering. It does create administrative costs to keep re-filing…and each of those re-filings creates an opportunity for error…those are two things that would have to be evaluated. It’s a reasonable option to consider, though.

      As a third alternative to permanent copyright and infinite renewals, I’d say that keeping the book in the market could keep it in copyright. In other words, you get the book published. You can’t let it become unavailable to the public, or you lose the copyright. There would be risks to that one…you might have to make a bad deal to maintain copyright. But since independent publishing is increasingly easy, that’s not the same problem that it used to be. There could be grace periods. This one, though, also requires determining a current state (as Life+70 does). A discrete term is simply less costly to figure.

  5. starfyre7 Says:

    I think that it does not matter if there is a standard time set or not for when the books are added to the public domain. However, in the US, the Library of Congress should have an online database of all public domain books. Since these are free, and do not require royalties be paid, anyone can get a version for free. So, if there was a database online, anyone could get ahold of these books easily. Thus, the government could make a small tax because of this service to help boost the economy. Also, these books should be in only common formats like .pdf and *.txt. These books would be pretty much unformatted, so if someone wanted these in a formated form, they would have to format it themselves o buy it. This may also help boost the economy. Also, If congress passed a law requiring that all publishers notify an organization when they publish a book or renew a copyright, or when royalties pass on to an estate, this could be entered into another database. Peple could find out from this database when a book has or will enter the public domain. The publishers would of course have to give in a copy of their records of this stuff from the past. Although this would be a lot of work, ths would help keep track of every book ever published in the US after a certain time. This woud solve the pulic domain isues. I agree with you about the orfan books. These should be either be added to the public domain or alowed to be sold by publishers.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, starfyre7!

      Copyright registrants are already required to submit a copy of the work to the Copyright Office, so that helps with your suggestion. That was true in paper, it’s true if you register digitally.

      As you correctly note, this would be a lot of work. The LoC (Library of Congress) already makes quite a few things available digitally…but nowhere near all of public domain. One clear question is whether or not the government doing that would be cutting into the market for the people selling public domain books (just looking at it economically). You are right that the formatting could make the paid editions more attractive.

      I’d love to see all public domain works available through the government! 🙂 That would be nice for me as a reader.

      One problem might be books that are not registered…those can still be under copyright protection. I don’t think that would impact a large segment of the books people want to read, though.

      Publishers do need to notify the government when they renew…but not when they publish.

      I do think that when books fall into the public domain is very significant. Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird, as an example. It was first published in the US in 1960. It’s one of the most wanted non-Kindleized books. It will currently enter the public domain in the US on January 1, 2056. Every day the book is not available as a legal e-book, the author (and the author’s eventual estate) is losing money. Suppose that the estate decides to do an e-book edition after the author’s death. The amount of time that they have to make money before it becomes freely available will be directly impacted by the public domain date.

      Thank you for a thoughtful comment!

  6. Little Orphan E-books | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Five things the USA can do to help e-books stimulate the economy […]

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