Thursday, December 27, 2018

Hooray for the Public Domain

For the first time in twenty years, on January 1, 2019, some copyrighted works in the United States will at long last enter the public domain. This is big news, reports Glenn Fleishman for the Smithsonian Magazine in For the First Time in More Than 20 Years, Copyrighted Works Will Enter the Public Domain.

It’s been so long since any copyrighted works have entered the public domain, it’s possible that many of us have forgotten what the public domain even is. 

A work in the public domain can be copied, distributed, modified, and publicly performed by anyone and everyone. You can republish the work verbatim or create adaptations (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). It’s the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes (mostly). The public domain is our shared culture, free to be used and reused by the people at large.

And for twenty years, not a single copyrighted work in the United States has entered the public domain due to the expiration of its copyright term. That’s a long time.

The original Copyright Act (enacted by many of the same people who wrote the American Constitution) provided that all copyrights expired in 14 years. Let that sink in: 14 years. Nowadays, copyrights last the life of the author plus 70 years or 95 years in the case of corporate copyrights. In other words, if a twenty-year-old songwriter pens the next great American ballad, assuming the songwriter lives to be 80 years old, that song would not enter the public domain for 130 years (that is, the year 2,148).

The effect of this gigantic expansion of the terms of copyrights is that more than three quarters all of the culture created in the 20th century is still under copyright and has yet to enter the public domain. The last works to see their copyright terms expire and enter the public domain were published when Warren G. Harding was President of the United States, the roaring ’20s were just getting started, and the Great Depression, World War II, and the atom bomb were still far in the future. 

We are the first generation of Americans not to have free access to the culture of our grandparents, all because of the massive expansion of copyrights.

Finally, that is beginning to change. Unless Congress pulls the rug out from under the American people (again), every year from now on, another year’s worth of twentieth-century copyrights will expire, beginning next year with works published in 1923, and then slowly marching, year by year, through the rest of the century. When these works enter the public domain, they will be available to anyone and everyone to do with whatever their imaginations can think of. I, for one, can’t wait to see what creative people come up with. 

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