Opposing Copyright Extension

Value of the Public Domain

  Survey on the Relative Costs of Copyright-Protected and Public Domain Songs
Tim Phillips

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Click here to see Tim Phillips's Chart showing the Cumulative Authorship of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"

    The claim is often made by the supporters of copyright term extension that works in the public domain often cost as much or more than works under copyright.  The theoretical  implausibility of this claim has been examined by Dennis Karjala in his 1998 Statement to Congress.  Now Tim Phillips has done a survey of song books in Norman, Oklahoma.  While this survey is admittedly not fully rigorous (see a description of Tim's methodology below), it is more solidly grounded than the approach typically used by the term extension supporters, which was to hold up, say, a copy of Tolstoy's War and Peace and a copy of a recent novel by John Grisham and state that they were offered at about the same price at a local bookstore.

    In this survey, the average cost per song in public domain songbooks was some 20-33% lower than for copyright protected songs, as shown in the tables.

Song books--copyrighted songs

Number of songs in book




Number of books




Total number of songs (all books)




Total Price




Average number songs per book




Average cost per book




Average cost per song




Song books--public domain songs

Number of songs in book




Number of books




Total number of songs (all books)




Total Price




Average number songs per book




Average cost per book




Average cost per song





   I surveyed paperback song books only: not spiral-back or hardback.  I surveyed only books that I found on the shelves of three bookstores in Norman, Oklahoma. Books available by special order were not surveyed.

    I surveyed only books with piano accompaniment. However, some books contain a very simple, one-hand piano accompaniment. These are included as piano-vocal editions along with more conventional piano-vocal editions. If a book, such as "The Decade Series—Songs of the 30s" was available both in a conventional piano-vocal edition and in an EZ-Play edition, both editions are included.

    However, some books of classical art-songs were available in different editions corresponding to different vocal ranges. In such cases, only one of the available editions is included in the sample.

    Songbooks were classified as "public domain" for the purposes of this survey if 90% or more of the included melodies were in the public domain. They were classified as "copyrighted" if 90% or more of the included melodies were under copyright. Books in which the copyright-to-pd melody ratio was less than 9-to-1 and greater than 1-to-9 were excluded.

    A book of complex, artistic arrangements of public domain melodies, "Thirteen Folksongs—Percy Grainger", was excluded because due to the nature of these arrangements a clear classification of the book was not possible. In the included p.d. songbooks, the arrangements are copyrighted but are intended as a vehicle for the public domain melody, not as artistic derivations or variations.

    This is, of course, a haphazard, not a scientific survey. I had no way to determing whether my sample of 64 "public domain" books and 124 "copyrighted" books was "representative" in the statistical sense. 

    A survey of this kind might be easier to do with collections of plays than with songbooks, since there might be fewer definitional problems.

If you have comments or questions, please contact Tim Phillips at <hrothgar@telepath.com>