(Un)Happy Public Domain Day 2015!


Once again, as has become an unfortunate ritual here at DurnMoose Central, it’s time to celebrate what could have been. That’s right, along with today being New Year’s Day, it’s also Public Domain Day!

So what is Public Domain Day? It’s a day when we look at what could have been. I’ll let the good folk at the Duke Law School’s Center for the Public Domain explain:

Public Domain Day is January 1st of every year. If you live in Canada, January 1st 2015 would be the day when the writings of Rachel Carlson, Ian Fleming, and Flannery O’Connor enter the public domain. It will be a not-so-silent spring! In Europe, the works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Edvard Munch, and hundreds of others will emerge into the public domain. You can find a great celebration of such authors here. All of these public domain works can be freely digitized and archived, so that anyone can find and use them. Canadians can make their own James Bond movies using Fleming’s books and Europeans can add a wealth of works to online archives of 20th century art, all without asking permission or violating the law.

On the first day of each year, Public Domain Day celebrates the moment when copyrights expire. The films, photos, books and symphonies whose copyright term has finished become, to quote Justice Louis Brandeis, “free as the air to common use.” The end of the copyright term on these works means that they enter the public domain, completing the copyright bargain. Copyright gives creators – authors, musicians, filmmakers, photographers – exclusive rights over their works for a limited time. This encourages creators to create and publishers to distribute – that’s a very good thing. But when the copyright ends, the work enters the public domain – to join the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, the books of Dickens – the material of our collective culture. That’s a good thing too! It’s the second part of the copyright bargain; the limited period of exclusive rights ends and the work enters the realm of free culture. Prices fall, new editions come out, songs can be sung, symphonies performed, movies displayed. Even better, people can legally build on what came before.


Sounds great, doesn’t it? But there’s only one hitch: You may notice that the above talks about what’s entering the P.D. in Canada and Europe. However, here in the good old USA, well, again, here’s Duke Law:

Current US law extends copyright for 70 years after the date of the author’s death, and corporate “works-for-hire” are copyrighted for 95 years after publication. But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years—an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. Under those laws, works published in 1958 would enter the public domain on January 1, 2015, where they would be “free as the air to common use.” Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2054. And no published works will enter our public domain until 2019.

So, yeah. Nothing. Not these books (which under the old law would have):

  • 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)2
  • Mary Renault, The King Must Die
  • Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
  • T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Not these movies (again, under the older copyright law, they would have):

  • Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a low-budget horror/sci-fi cult hit.
  • Auntie Mame, starring Rosalind Russell, Coral Browne, Roger Smith, and Peggy Cass.
  • The Blob, sci-fi/horror classic starring Steve McQueen in his first leading role.
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives.
  • The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis, and Theodore Bikel.
  • From the Earth to the Moon, starring Joseph Cotten, George Sanders, and Debra Paget.
  • Gigi, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jourdan. The film garnered 9 Academy Awards.
  • Mon Oncle, writer/director Jacques Tati reprises his comic alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot, and wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
  • Some Came Running, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine.
  • South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, directed by Joshua Logan, starring Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor.
  • Touch of Evil, written and directed by Orson Welles, starring Welles, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh.
  • The Young Lions, starring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Dean Martin.
  • Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes.

No new music, no new scientific papers, no nothing.

So, what can be done? Well, as noted, 2019 is a very important year, because that’s the year that things finally start moving into the Public Domain again. Which means it’s not going to be long before Congress is going to be pressured to start reviewing yet another copyright extension by those corporations (yes, here’s where I really start pointing the finger at Disney, not only because they are always one of the biggest fighters for keeping their works out of the Public Domain, but because so much of their own work is built on fairy tales, stories, and other works that they got from where? Yep, you guessed it!) who have a vested interest in keeping things from moving to the P.D.

So right now, it’s mostly a matter of informing yourself about the issue, finding out more about the Public Domain, what it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s so important not just to future creativity, but to many of the activities that people enjoy today. Again, I’ll mention that Duke Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain is a great resource, and a great place to start is their page on Public Domain Day which you can access right here. And then keep an eye out as we get closer to 2019 and watch for the discussions to begin. And, of course, keep an eye here, because I’ll be letting you know as things really begin to progress.


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