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
    jupiterkansas (profile), 3 Jan 2012 @ 2:37pm

    Re: A little confused

    The real issue with prolonged copyright terms isn't the works that are still being published - it's the thousands and thousands of works that the publishers figure they can't make money on, so they don't make them available in any way. A hundred years of culture are sitting in corporate vaults inaccessible because they're the only ones that can make copies, and they see no profit in it. Those are the works that really need to be in the public domain so that the niche group of people that have an interest in them can have them.

    Consider for example an old TV talk show - it's not being broadcast, it's no for sale anywhere, and nobody really would pay to see it - but your favorite musician appeared on there and sang a song. You'd like to see it, or at least hear it, but you can't, because the rights are owned and the content is locked away. Thankfully someone had it on VHS and uploaded it to Youtube. Technically that's illegal because it's not in the public domain, but now you can at least see the performance. Otherwise it would be culture lost.

    Before copyright, everyone had a right to copy any work of art. If someone recorded a song, you could take that song an do anything you wanted to it, including singing it yourself without acknowledging where it came from.

    Government created copyright to prevent that from happening - mainly so big publishers wouldn't take someone's book and profit from it without paying the writer.

    Now the tables have turned, and copyright protects the big publishers from having their work used by the general public.

    So yes, you have a basic human right to copy anything you happen upon. It's the essence of being creative. See something you like, copy it. The government took away that right with copyright, and when it's reasonable most people agree that it's fair, because without it a lot of people may not create anything.

    Copyright term extensions, however, have gone way beyond fair, esp. considering when all those works were made, the original creators knew the original terms of copyright and were fine with them. It's the corporations, which profit on the work of (dead) artists, that longs for eternal copyright. They want to keep making money on the same material for years and years.

    The funny part is, just because it's in the public domain doesn't mean they can't still make money on it. There are plenty of publishers making money on public domain books. But they want complete control.

    Copyright has locked our culture away, and we need serious pro-public copyright reform.

    Oh, and most songs licenses are set up so anybody can cover them, even the Biebs. You don't have to ask permission - you just have to pay royalties to the original artist. That's because the music industry at least realized that artists cover songs all the time and it would be impossible to grant permission every single time.

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