Because of extensions to the term of copyright law, here in the United States, nothing new has entered the public domain for the last twenty years. Every year on January first, The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University writes a post on what would have entered the public domain on this day before copyright law was extended to its current terms. Here are some of the highlights from the post:
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 1961 would enter the public domain on January 1, 2018, where they would be “free as the air to common use.” Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2057.1 And no published works will enter our public domain until 2019. The laws in other countries are different—thousands of works are entering the public domain in Canada and the EU on January 1.
What books would be entering the public domain if we had the pre-1978 copyright laws? You might recognize some of the titles below.
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
- J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
- John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
- Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy
- Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
- Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
- William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine
- Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
- Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach
Consider the films from 1961 that would have become available this year. You could share clips with friends or incorporate them into fan fiction. Community theaters could show the full features. Libraries and archivists would be free to digitize and preserve them. Here are a few of the movies that we won’t see in the public domain for another 39 years.
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- West Side Story
- The Guns of Navarone
- A Raisin in the Sun
- The Parent Trap
- Splendor in the Grass
- Judgment at Nuremberg
- The Misfits
- The Hustler
What 1961 music could you have used without fear of a lawsuit? If you wanted to find guitar tabs or sheet music and freely use some of the influential music from 1961, January 1 2018 would have been a rocking day for you under earlier copyright laws. Patsy Cline’s classic Crazy (Willie Nelson) would be available. So would Stand By Me (Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller), Runaway (Del Shannon, Max Crook), and Let’s Twist Again (Kal Mann, Dave Appell). You could publicly perform or set short films to Surfin’ (Brian Wilson, Mike Love) or Crying (Roy Orbison, Joe Melson), all without permission or fee. Today these musical works remain copyrighted until 2057.4
Like West Side Story, some of the hit songs from 1961 borrowed from earlier works. Elvis Presley’s Surrender (Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman) was adapted from the 1902 Neapolitan ballad “Torna a Surriento” (Ernesto and Giambattista de Curtis), and his Can’t Help Falling in Love (Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss) is derived from the 1784 French song “Plaisir d’amour” (Jean-Paul-Égide Martini).
The current copyright law also affects the status and availability of works of art and scientific research.
You can read the entire article here. Please also take a moment to read some of the articles on the Center’s site which explain the importance of the public domain, how it is shrinking due to copyright laws and why that matters.