Hopefully For The Last Time: The US Has Zero New Works Enter The Public Domain On January 1st
from the one-more-year... dept
For many years now, during the first week of January, we write a post about Public Domain Day. That’s the day — January 1st — where works that have reached the statutory limit reach the public domain. The Public Domain Review has an excellent collection of the Class of 2018 — showing what works entered the public domain this week in the “life plus 50” copyright countries (Canada, New Zealand, and many countries in Asia and Africa) and the “life plus 70” copyright countries (most of the EU, Brazil, Israel, Russia, Turkey, Nigeria). For life plus 70 countries, the works of Aleister Crowley and Winston Churchill are now in the public domain. For the life plus 50 countries, Rene Magritte’s paintings, the song compositions of Woody Guthrie and Otis Redding, and the writings of Jean Toomer are now in the public domain — among many others.
Except, as we note each and every year, there is no such “graduating class” in the US. Because, thanks to Disney’s heavy lobbying, copyright keeps getting extended and extended and extended. If you’re interested, the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University has also put together its depressing annual “What Could Have Entered the Public Domain…” list for the US, if the law had remained as it was prior to 1978, when the maximum length of copyright was 56 years. Under that setup, Josepher Heller’s Catch-22, Salinger’s Franny & Zooey and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land all would have entered the public domain. Grok that. Movies including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, West Side Story, and The Guns of Navarone all would have entered the public domain as well. And, of course, a ton of music:
What 1961 music could you have used without fear of a lawsuit? If you wanted to find guitar tabs or sheet music and freely use some of the influential music from 1961, January 1 2018 would have been a rocking day for you under earlier copyright laws. Patsy Cline?s classic Crazy (Willie Nelson) would be available. So would Stand By Me (Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller), Runaway (Del Shannon, Max Crook), and Let?s Twist Again (Kal Mann, Dave Appell). You could publicly perform or set short films to Surfin’ (Brian Wilson, Mike Love) or Crying (Roy Orbison, Joe Melson), all without permission or fee. Today these musical works remain copyrighted until 2057
There’s much more as well. As the Center notes in a companion post, this should be seen as highly problematic. Locking up our culture like this does no one any good — except for a very, very, very, very small number of copyright holders on the few works that are still economically viable. Even worse, because things are locked up for so long, so much of our culture becomes orphan works — which tend to disappear entirely, as no one can even figure out who holds the copyright in question, should they even want to make use of it. And, without the public domain, we lose access to potentially wonderful aspects of culture:
What happens when works enter the public domain? Sometimes, wonderful things. The 1947 film It?s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain in 1975 because its copyright was not properly renewed after the first 28-year term. The film had been a flop on release, but thanks to its public domain status, it became a holiday classic. Why? Because TV networks were free to show it over and over again during the holidays, making the film immensely popular. But then copyright law reentered the picture?. In 1993, the film?s original copyright holder, capitalizing on a recent Supreme Court case, reasserted copyright based on its ownership of the film?s musical score and the short story on which the film was based (the film itself is still in the public domain). Ironically, a film that only became a success because of its public domain status was pulled back into copyright.
The one bit of good news, hopefully on the horizon is that this should be the last year that nothing enters the public domain on Public Domain Day. While Disney and other big copyright holders have been able to continually push out the eventual entrance of new works into the public domain in the US, if nothing changes, next January we will finally have works published in 1923 enter the public domain in the US. There had been rumblings about another attempt at copyright term extension in the US a few years back, but it’s been much quieter in the past few years, as I think even the lobbying powerhouses in the music and movie industries have realized this isn’t a fight they could win, or one really worth having. That doesn’t mean someone won’t try to extend the term again, but I hope most people now recognize what a bad idea it would be.
Of course, it’s still ridiculous that it’s only now that those works from the 1920s are entering the public domain — while other countries are at least getting works from the 1940s or 1960s. Rather than worrying about copyright term extension, it seems we should really be exploring ways to bring copyright term back down to a much more reasonable time frame.