Why Johnny Can't Read Any New Public Domain Books In The US: Because Nothing New Entered The Public Domain

from the and-won't-for-many-years dept

Every year, January 1st is "public domain day" around the globe. It's the day when all works that have had their copyrights expire enter the public domain, since copyright term is based on the year of publication, rather than the exact date. While some parts of the world still have something to celebrate on public domain day -- such as how the works of James Joyce are now in the public domain in the EU, here in the US as we've noted in the past, we're left waiting... for nothing. Because thanks to massive changes to copyright law, as well as copyright term extension, absolutely nothing has or will enter the public domain for many years in the US (minus a specific declaration by the copyright holder... and even then it's not entirely clear that qualifies).

The good folks at the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University put together a depressing list each year of what would have gone into the public domain under copyright law if the law prior to 1978 remained in effect. You can check out this year's unfortunate list of works seized from the public in a retroactive one-sided renegotiation of the deal the copyright holders had with the public. These works should be in the public domain, and they're not... and the public got nothing in exchange for having these works taken away from us. Pulling from their writeup, here are just a few of the works that I thought you might find interesting:
  • Rudolf Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do About It
  • J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King, the final installment in his Lord of Rings trilogy
  • Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 8–September 30, 1945, translated by Warner Wells, md
  • Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen, the second book in his Sword of Honour trilogy
  • C.S. Lewis' The Magician’s Nephew, the sixth volume his The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
  • Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee's play about the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” Inherit the Wind
  • Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity
  • Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers
  • Arthur C. Clarke's Earthlight
  • Elvis Presley's first TV appearance (on Louisiana Hayride, March 5, 1955)
  • Episodes of "I Love Lucy"
  • The first issue of William F. Buckley's "National Review."
  • "The Seven Year Itch," directed by Billy Wilder; starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell
  • "Lady and the Tramp," Walt Disney Productions' classic animation
  • Alfred Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief," starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly
  • Two of James Dean’s three major motion pictures: "East of Eden," directed by Elia Kazan and co-starring Raymond Massey and Julie Harris; and "Rebel Without a Cause," directed by Nicholas Ray and co-starring Natlie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Jim Backus
They also list out a bunch of songs:
Unchained Melody (Hy Zaret & Alex North), Ain't That a Shame (Antoine "Fats" Domino and Dave Bartholomew), Blue Suede Shoes (Carl Perkins), Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash), The Great Pretender (Buck Ram), Maybellene (Chuck Berry, Russ Fratto, & Alan Freed), and Tutti Frutti (Richard Penniman (aka Little Richard), Dorothy LaBostrie, & Joe Lubin),
As they point out, it's really even more ridiculous than this, because under pre-1978 copyright law, most works didn't even go to the full 56 years of copyright protection. Instead, the vast majority of works gave up their copyright after 28 years. If the rates from the time held up, about 85% of the works created in 1983 would be in the public domain today. Instead, they'll be locked up until most of us are dead. Isn't that wonderful?

The thing is, with the list of works from 1955 above, when they were all created, the maximum term of copyright of 56 years was a perfectly acceptable trade-off for those creators. They got their monopoly, and they created their works. What I can't understand is what the logic is in extending those rights retroactively. Clearly the incentive to create was fine as it was. Why should it change after the work was created?

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  1. icon
    PaulT (profile), 3 Jan 2012 @ 2:32pm

    Re: A little confused

    "you seem to be annoyed that some sort of contract with the public has been breached"

    It's called copyright. You know, the limited term artificial restriction that's meant to give a *temporary* monopoly to artists in return for the creation of more cultural works. I wonder how such terms extended decades beyond the artist's death achieves this aim?

    "it seems to me that the pharmaceutical industry would be a better target"

    ...which Mike has also criticised on many occasions. Your point?

    "When you're talking about musical copyrights, the biggest downside I can see (besides the fact that I can't bootleg and sell any James Dean movies yet) is that we'll never be treated to the Biebs' cover of Folsom Prison Blues. "

    You do realise that the above list is just the list of the best known works that *should* have entered into the public domain, under the original agreements entered into by the original artists? Why do you think that the works should have been retroactively "protected" after the artists' deaths, let alone allow works considered less commercially viable to rot in vaults with no legal exposure? What possible benefit could there be to anybody, other than a handful of corporations who had nothing to do with the creation of said works, especially considering that several clearly and legitimately built on previously existing works themselves?

    You do also realise that "public domain" does not mean that the existing owners of copyrights cannot make money, only that they no longer have the exclusive right to do so? I'd love to see East of Eden, but I'll be fucked if I'm buying a full priced DVD of the movie in order to do so just because Warner lobbied for some right to keep the film for 56 years after the star's death. Hell, there's several songs on that list I only know because of the cover versions - should I not be allowed to listen to the originals because someone has profit to be made?

    "I call that a wash."

    I call you a fool.

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