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Here We Go Again: All The Works That Should Now Be In The Public Domain, But Aren't

from the *sigh* dept

Each year, for the past few years, the wonderful Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University publishes a blog post highlighting key works that should have entered the public domain on January first, but did not. And each year, we write about it again. Here is the list for 2016. These are mostly works that were published in 1959. Under the law at the time they were created, the maximum copyright term was 56 years, and that apparently was more than enough of a bargain for the work to be created. That we retroactively extended those works, taking away the public domain for no actual benefit, remains a travesty. The list includes books like Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, and Strunk and White's famed The Elements of Style. Films that should be in the public domain today include Ben-Hur, North by Northwest, and Some Like It Hot. The original season of the seminal Rocky and Bullwinkle show would also be in the public domain.

Not surprisingly, if horrifically disappointingly, the blog post points out that many of the movies that should be going into the public domain were, themselves, built on public domain works:
Many of these movies were built on public domain works. Ben-Hur was based on Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880). Sleeping Beauty drew on fairy tales including Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant (1697) (itself based on earlier fairy tales) and the Brothers Grimm’s later version of Perrault’s story (1812). Journey to Center of the Earth adapted Jules Verne’s 1864 novel of the same name. One work inspires another. That is how the public domain feeds creativity.
But if you wanted to continue to build on those works, too fucking bad. What a massive loss to culture.

The post also details music that should be in the public domain (including Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and the original score to The Sound of Music). Even more terrible is scientific research that is still locked away:

1959 was another noteworthy year for science. C. P. Snow presented The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, an influential lecture about the gulf between the sciences and the humanities. The programming language COBOL was developed. Martin Gardner published the Three Prisoners Problem, a probability theory paradox, in his “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published Searching for Interstellar Communications, a foundational work for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, in the journal Nature.

If you follow the link from Nature above (and you do not have a subscription or institutional access), you will see that this 1959 article is behind a paywall. You can purchase it for $32. A distressing number of scientific articles from 1959 require payment or a subscription or account, including those in major journals such as Science and JAMA. And the institutional access that many top scientists enjoy is not guaranteed—even institutions such as Harvard have considered canceling their subscriptions because they could no longer afford the escalating prices of major journal subscriptions.

I hate writing this post each year. It's incredibly depressing. What's worse is when we see people who claim to support "artists' rights" or who claim to be supporters of culture not realize how damaging this is to their own creative output. The usual refrain of "just make your own work" is so ignorant as to be laughable. Everyone builds on the works of those who came before, but thanks to all of this copyright extension we're seeing culture disappear into a giant blackhole. And, even worse, rather than fix this problem, the US government seems focused on making it worse. The TPP agreement would block the US from being allowed to roll back copyright terms, while forcing many other countries to extend their own copyright terms.

It is difficult to see how anyone can support such blatant destruction of culture.

Filed Under: copyright, copyright terms, culture, public domain

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  1. icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), 4 Jan 2016 @ 6:58pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: 'As long as I get mine, who cares about the rest of you'

    Interesting that this 2010 European produced Ben Hur miniseries didn't get sued into oblivion.

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