So, What Didn't Enter The Public Domain This Week, That Should Have
from the take-a-look dept
A couple weeks ago, I pointed out that, while some stuff was entering the public domain in many countries around the globe on January 1st, here in the US, we got a big fat empty set. The good folks over at the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University have put out their depressing annual post about what should have been entering the public domain this year if we still were working under the previous copyright law regime, before it changed in 1978 via the 1976 Copyright Act. Under that law, the maximum length of copyright was 56 years — meaning that works from 1956 would have entered the public domain yesterday. There were some impressive works that will remain locked up for decades:
- Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume I and Volume II
- Philip K. Dick, Minority Report
- Ian Fleming, Diamonds are Forever
- Fred Gibson, Old Yeller
- Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues
- Alan Lerner, My Fair Lady
- Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night
- John Osborne, Look Back in Anger
- Dodie Smith, 101 Dalmations
They also list out a bunch of movies, music, scientific publications and much, much more. All locked up. As they note, the more popular of these works continue to survive (but not have the same sorts of revivals they might otherwise have), but lesser works are literally disintegrating and disappearing because we can’t make copies. Extra shameful are some of the movies that were made on top of existing public domain works — yet whose own adaptations may never reach the public domain. Movies like Forbidden Planet and Around the World in 80 Days were examples of works built on the public domain, but which themselves remain completely locked up. It’s very sad if you support culture.
And, of course, this only covers works that were kept under copyright for the full 56 years. Since the earlier copyright law required a renewal at 28 years, and 85% of copyrights were not renewed (suggesting that the vast majority of copyright holders don’t value them past 28 years), lots of works from 1984 should also be entering the public domain, but probably won’t get there for another century or so.
And the real sad part is just how much culture we’re losing because of all this:
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current copyright term is that in most cases, the cultural harm is not offset by any benefit to an author or rights holder. Unlike the famous works highlighted here, the vast majority of works from 1956 do not retain commercial value. This means that no one is benefiting from continued copyright, while the works remain both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits. The public loses the possibility of meaningful access for no good reason.
It’s difficult to see how this situation makes any sense at all.