What Happens When Literature Enters the Public Domain?

BG-ebooks-640One of the loveliest sites on the internet is Project Gutenberg, an open access resource for nearly 45,000 free ebooks. What makes it possible is the expiration of copyright, meaning classic works like Plato’s Republic and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn are just a click away, downloadable onto a desktop or e-reader.

I was recently keyed into an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that looks at how Google is increasing our access to books from the 19th century:

Work that fails to enter a canon — literary, historical, or otherwise — tends to languish on the dustier shelves of college libraries. Digitization allows a new generation of scholars to look at them with fresh regard. This represents a significant change in the way we think about scholarship. Google Books is a kind of Victorian portal that takes me into a mare magnum of out-of-print authors, many of whom helped launch disciplines. Or who wrote essays, novels, and histories that did not transcend their time. Or who anonymously produced the paperwork of emerging bureaucracies, organizations, and businesses that, because printed, has been scanned and, because scanned, is now available.

The author, Paula Findlen, makes a good point: we’ve always been able to read and access the classics. However, the cost in both time and money of accessing literature from the 19th century that didn’t fall into the canon meant it was unlikely that we would pore through anything else. Imagine trying to pick apart every single book in a given Barnes and Noble, and you get a sense of the challenge. But when works are digitized and free, they’re much more likely to get some attention.

It reminded me of a short look in The Atlantic at what happens when books enter the public domain. We get a weird phenomenon in which contemporary books are quite popular, and then they vanish from the public eye until a few decades later, when their copyright expires. Combine this with news about the Getty setting thousands of images free, and it’s quite obvious that making art and literature accessible to more people at lower cost is overall a great thing.

image via zeta.net

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