Tomorrow, 1 January, is Public Domain Day. In the parts of the world where reasonable copyright law exists, this means that the works of many authors will be freely available to download and read (DRM notwithstanding).
In the US, we’re not so lucky.
While Europe is going to be enjoying the works by this list of authors who died in 1943, here in the US no works will be going into the public domain until at least 2019. Thanks to laws passed in 1976 and 1992 (more on this in a footnote), copyright has more or less been made permanent – a situation not envisioned by the founders.
Earlier today the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University posted their annual list of works which would have entered the public domain under pre-1976 laws. This includes a treasure trove of books from authors as diverse as Isaac Asimov to Martin Luther King:
- Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
- Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French), Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn
- Simone de Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)
- Michael Bond, A Bear Called Paddington, with illustrations by Peggy Fortnum
- Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American
- Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- Agatha Christie, Ordeal by Innocence
- John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society
- Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie Structurale (Structural Anthropology
- Mary Renault, The King Must Die
- Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
- T.H. White, The Once and Future King
All of the above works were published in 1958, so the copyrights would have expired under the old 56 year term.
As the Center put it in their blog post:
What a trove of books—imagine these being freely available to students and educators around the world. You would be free to translate these books into other languages, create Braille or audio versions for visually impaired readers (if you think that publishers wouldn’t object to this, you would be wrong), or adapt them for theater or film. You could read them online or buy cheaper print editions, because others were free to republish them. (Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see here, here, and here.) Imagine a digital Library of Alexandria containing all of the world’s books from 1958 and earlier, where, thanks to technology, you can search, link, annotate, copy and paste. (Google Books has brought us closer to this reality, but for copyrighted books where there is no separate agreement with the copyright holder, it only shows three short snippets, not the whole book.) You could use these books in your own stories—The Once and Future King was free to draw upon Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (a compilation of King Arthur legends) because Malory’s work was in the public domain. One tale inspires another. That is how the public domain feeds creativity. Instead of seeing these literary works enter the public domain in 2015, we will have to wait until 2054.
If you ask me, I think the above understates what copyright term extensions are costing the US public.
Up until 1992, the 56 year copyright term in the US was actually a pair of 28 year terms, with the second one requiring a renewal before the first expired.
This means that a copyright holder could allow a copyright to lapse 28 years after a work is published, in which case we would have at least some works from 1986 passing into the public domain tomorrow.
Alas, that happy circumstance was prevented by the 1976 law and by the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992, which automatically renewed the copyrights of every work after 1964. This, even though the Center reports that under the old laws 85% of copyrights weren’t renewed for the second 28 year term.
Can you imagine how many titles in Google Books would suddenly become public domain tomorrow, and could be freely downloaded?
The mind boggles.