The (US) Public Domain Class of 2012

It’s the last day of the year, and in many parts of the world the first of January marks a new set of works entering the public domain as copyrights expire either 50 years or 70 years after the death of the creators.

The Public Domain Review has put together a short list of authors whose work will be entering the public domain this year, and I thought it would be a good idea to cull from that list all the authors and artists whose copyrights will expire tomorrow morning.

Here’s the list:

Short list, isn’t it?  Thanks to Big Content in general and Disney in particular, no copyrights will be expiring in the US this year. This year’s list contains the exact same names as last year’s, the 2010 list and the one before that.

For those of us who actually value culture and understand that the public domain is the property of all, the  fact that the US continues to pass laws to extend the term of copyright isn’t just shameful, it’s downright despicable. We’re handing control of our own culture to a handful of corporations.

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say that copyright exists to benefit creators. Given that the first copyright law was enacted at the insistence of a guild of printers, I’m not sure that has ever been true.

The very first copyright law in the world was passed in 1662 in Great Britan. It was called the Licensing Act, and while it was ostensibly intended to prevent seditious and treasonable works what it really did was create a system of censorship and grant a monopoly on printing presses. That monopoly was limited to the members of a guild called the Stationer’s Company.

That law expired and was renewed a couple times over the next 50 years, and it was eventually replaced by the Statute of Anne, This law, which was passed in 16010, granted authors an exclusive privilege to reproduce and distribute their works.

Copyrights originally expired in 14 years, and that period was copied by the US in the 1790 Copyright Law. Speaking of the US, in spite of what many claim copyright is not explicitly defined in the US Constitution. Instead Section One of the US Constitution says:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

As you can see in the quote, US copyright law was conceived as a compromise. In order to benefit society, creators were granted a monopoly which was supposed to run for a limited period of time before expiring.

Unfortunately that compromise went by the wayside as the middlemen got involved. There’s money to be made when you have a monopoly, so naturally the publishers pushed for extensions to the term of copyright. The 14 year term quickly became 28 years here in the US. The optional renewal also lengthened to 28 years, but copyright law in the US didn’t really get out of balance until 1976.

In what I am sure was only coincidentally timed to pass into law before the expiration of Disney’s copyrights on Mickey Mouse, the US passed the Copyright Act of 1976. This law brought the US into closer agreement with international copyright treaties by (among other changes) extending the term of copyright to death+50 years.

As you can see from this law, creators clearly weren’t being incentivized to create enough content. Never mind that there’s little financial value to most content after it has existed for a couple decades, and never mind that no amount of financial incentives can encourage a creator to continue to create after he or she is dead.

As the pious lobbyists bleated while they shoved campaign donations into the pockets of Congress: Please, won’t someone think about the authors?

This was the point, folks, where copyright clearly stopped being in the interests of the creators. This is also the point where copyright stopped serving the interests of the public.

And since 1976, copyright law in the US has continued to change at the behest of the middlemen, including yet another extension to the term of copyright as well as laws which laws which stole works from the public domain and placed them under copyright again.

The situation we have today is a stranglehold on our culture by the middlemen.  If you have ever wondered why I have little respect for copyright law, that is it.

However much you want to frame copyright as being in the interest of the creators, the reality is that our government continues to extend the term of copyright at the behest of the middlemen. In the end it comes down to money, not moral rights, not the immorality of piracy.

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Caleb31 December, 2012

    Why Would they take out the annotation feature?

    1. Nate Hoffelder31 December, 2012

      Somehow this comment end up on the wrong post.

      Would you mind reposting it in the correct spot?

  2. Michael Allen31 December, 2012

    A few years ago, someone pointed out to me that Macaulay made a speech in the UK’s House of Commons, in 1841, which said almost everything that needs to be said about copyright. It’s worth a look. Start here:

    1. Nate Hoffelder31 December, 2012

      It’s a pity his arguments are ignored; he presents an excellent argument that creators aren’t all that motivated by what happens to a work 50 years after their death.

      Here’s another one worth reading, though not quite for the same reason:

  3. Jeffrey Smith1 January, 2013

    Personally I believe copyright law should have different lengths for printed and visual media because they are two entirely different animals. I have no problem with the law for visual media (motion pictures, cartoons, videos, still pictures) being essentially unlimited. However it is my belief that printed media (books, comics and graphic novels, and the like) should have a shorter span of protection. Something between the life of the author plus 20 years and the life of the author plus 40. That would give them both the protection of ownership, and give them something of value to pass on to their descendants.

  4. William1 January, 2013

    Speaking on the topic of control, you mind making your links *not* open in new tabs?

    1. Nate Hoffelder1 January, 2013

      I’m thinking about it.

      1. Ellen M. Gregg4 January, 2013

        If they’re links that take readers from your site, then I highly recommend pushing them to open in a new window. Inconvenient, perhaps, for mobile readers, but being “sticky” is important for you, Nate.

  5. The Rodent2 January, 2013

    Thanks for the brief history lesson… I’ve been trying to figure out how to (successfully) make sure all of my own work gets released into the public domain as soon as I’m dead… Whether it’s worth anything or not, it shouldn’t be tied up for a century…

  6. the rodent2 January, 2013

    Today Greg Newby’s Project Gutenberg monthly newsletter came out. I’ll quote from it below because I can’t find a copy online. I guess PG doesn’t have it on a newsfeed…? Anyway:

    * Public Domain Day 2013

    Thanks to Duke Law for highlighting what WOULD have become public
    domain in the US on January 1, 2013 if copyright term extensions had
    not intervened.
    When Michael Hart started Project Gutenberg, January 1 was a great
    day. Every year, items from 75 years previous would enter the public
    domain. We had a schedule of items going into the public domain… in
    1998, we had begun to digitize items first published in the US in
    1922. In 1999, we would have started items from 1923. This was
    forestalled by the copyright term extension act of 1998.

  7. Ellen M. Gregg4 January, 2013

    Control it is, as William mentions – and wrongful, at that.

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