January 30, 2013

Absolutely nothing will enter the public domain in 2013


Do you remember the jubilation last year, here on MobyLives and in the wider community of scholars and book lovers, when the James Joyce estate passed into the public domain? People celebrated because due to the power granted them by copyright, the notoriously litigious Joyce estate had prevented even public readings of Joyce’s work from taking place.

Well, there is very little to celebrate this year, as in 2013 absolutely no published work will pass into the public domain.

Under the United States’ previous copyright regime, hundreds of works from 1956 would have passed into the public domain this year. Revisions to the law now stipulate, however, that copyright extends for 70 years after the death of the author. Instead, we will have to wait until the ludicrous date of 2052 for many of these works.

According to Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, nothing will enter the public domain this year, or the next. In fact, there will be nothing until 2019.

“if we had the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1956 would be entering the public domain. They range from the films The Best Things in Life are Free, Around the World in 80 Days, Forbidden Planet, and The Man Who Knew Too Much, to the Phillip K. Dick’s The Minority Report and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, to seminal articles on artificial intelligence.”

I’m not sure that Phillip K. Dick and Ian Fleming will still need that pocket change until 2052. Personally, I’d prefer that Dodie Smith‘s 101 Dalmatians enter that public domain so that it could be freely converted into braille for the blind, or translated into other languages.

If you’d like to see what other well known books, songs, academic articles and art is being witheld from you because of  bloated copyright laws, have a look here.

Not to mention, besides these more famous works, there are plenty of works from 1956 languishing in obscurity because they are not freely accessible or their creators cannot be found. As the Center for the Study of the Public Domain’s blog notes, 1956 was an especially vital year for science. As they say, “it marked the publication of seminal research in the nascent fields of cognitive science and artificial intelligence,” but much this work remains un-digitized or held behind pay walls.

“Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current copyright term is that in most cases, the cultural harm is not offset by any benefit to an author or rights holder. Unlike the famous works highlighted here, the vast majority of works from 1956 do not retain commercial value. This means that no one is benefiting from continued copyright, while the works remain both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits. The public loses the possibility of meaningful access for no good reason.”

It’s clear that due to lack of access, thousands of works are being forgotten and lost to the popular consciousness. It’s no less than the absolute loss of vast swathes of America’s creative and scientific output.



Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.