Copyrights Continue to Taunt the Public Domain

Copyrights Continue to Taunt the Public Domain

Recently, Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain posted an article on works published in 1955 that would have entered 2012's public domain but for the 1976 Copyright Act (effective 1978). Some of the works include:

  • J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King
  • C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew
  • Walt Disney's Lady and the Tramp
  • James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause
  • The songs Blue Suede Shoes and Folsom Prison Blues

The article makes its case in favor of the public domain. Obviously, without the '76 extension, public availability would have been much greater in 2012 (before 1976, the maximum copyright term was 56 years).  This raises the question as to what we could be using online, quoting, or republishing. And the scope might have been broader than just works published in 1955. Speaking to copyrights that have gone un-renewed since 1983, the article notes:

If the pre-1978 law were still in effect, we could have seen 85% of the works created in 1983 enter the public domain on January 1, 2012. Imagine what that would mean to our archives, our libraries, our schools and our culture. Such works could be digitized, preserved, and made available for education, for research, for future creators. Instead, they will remain under copyright for decades to come, perhaps even into the next century. Think of the cultural harm that does.

HitFix writer, Drew McWeeny, adds to the argument in his blog:

In 1978, the law was revised, and the result is a maddening mess, encouraged by giant corporate copyright mills like Disney, and I get it.  I fully understand why they want to continue to push and twist and fight for control of certain things.  I think the period in which the "creator," which has become a corporate behemoth instead of a person, can exploit a piece of successful material has become a much more refined and long-lived process that [sic] originally anyone understood or could imagine. 

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