Happy New Year! You know what would have made it even happier? The non-existence of the Copyright Act of 1976, which blocked classic works of film and literature from the public domain (and your laptop and e-reader) this January 1st.
Before the law’s 1978 passage, copyrights expired after a maximum of 56 years beyond being published—meaning works from 1954 would have dropped into our laps at the start of this year. This is far from the case now. But what if we close our eyes and try to imagine a world in which Congress kept culture, rather than royalties, in mind? Yes, a world of fantasy!
Had the law not passed, a whole host of wonderful works by brilliant dead people published in 1954 would have found their way into the public domain—meaning they’d be fair game for free, digital consumption and enjoyment by all of us. Anything you might have heard of or cared about? Probably not, unless you’re into minor works like The Lord of the Flies or The Fellowship of the Ring—or cinema classics such as Rear Window, On the Waterfront, and The Seven Samurai. All of them could have been available in your pocket, for free.
The Duke University School of Law’s centre for the Study of the Public Domain has a rundown of what else could have been, lamenting that although these big name titles are the most striking cultural loss, the consequences of the copyright extensions are far greater:
Most of these works are famous – that is why we included them here. And the authors of famous and commercially successful works would probably renew the copyright for a second term of 28 years. But we know from the Copyright Office that 85% of authors did not renew their copyrights (for books, the number is even higher – 93% did not renew), since most works exhaust their commercial value very quickly. Under the law that existed until 1978 . . . Up to 85% of all copyrighted works from 1982 would be entering the public domain on January 1, 2011.
I’m not opposed to copyright law. Everyone needs to make a living. But Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot would have been up for public domain grabs over the weekend, doesn’t need to make a living—because he’s been dead for 30 years. He also probably wouldn’t give a damn if you were able to freely read his plays on your Kindle or iPad starting this year. Unfortunately for us, we won’t be able to until 2050, thanks to 1998’s most recent Congressional bootlicking addition to copyright interests. Start the ball drop! [Center for the Study of the Public Domain]
Photo by Ben Smith