Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Your New Year's Public Domain Report, 2013

It's January 1, which means it's the day that works whose copyright has expired enter the public domain. Here's the list of works that entered the public domain in the United States today:

Nothing. Nada. Not a thing.

Because of repeated extensions of copyright, virtually nothing has entered the public domain since January 1, 1979. The United States' first copyright law (the one passed a few years after the Constitution gave Congress power to enact copyrights "for a limited term), set the maximum length of copyright at 28 years. That had grown to a maximum of 56 years in the early 20th century, but in the Seventies Congress extended that to the author's lifetime plus fifty years, and 75 years for previously existing copyrights and for anonymous or corporate-authored works. In 1998, even those generous terms were extended by a further 20 years. The result is that for the last thirty-five years, everything published in 1922 or earlier has been public domain and everything published in 1923 or later has been private property and will be until January 1, 2019.

What would the world look like if not for these unprecedented laws?

If not for the Milennium Copyright Act:

Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would enter public domain today, and all of the songs from its score. Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go. So would Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.

Other films entering public domain would include The Awful Truth, The Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races, Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy, Heidi starring Shirley Temple, Capra's Lost Horizon, The Prince and the Pauper with Errol Flynn and The Prisoner of Zenda starring Ronald Colman, Fred and Ginger in Shall We Dance?, Topper, the original versions of Stage Door and A Star Is Born, and Jean Renoir's cinematic masterpiece Grand Illusion.

In the world of literature, The Hobbit should be entering public domain today. So should To Have and Have Not, Out of Africa, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and three Agatha Christie novels including Death on the Nile. W.H. Auden's "Spain," Wallace Stevens's The Man with the Blue Guitar, Edna St. Vincent Millay's Conversations at Midnight and the fifth book of Pound's Cantos should be leaving copyright. And Dr. Seuss's first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street! should become part of the public domain like so many other classic works for children.

"My Funny Valentine" should enter public domain today. So should "In the Still of the Night," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "A Foggy Day," "Love Is Here to Stay," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues," Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump," and holiday classic "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony should become public domain, too.

According to Congress, all of these works are too recent, and need to stay in copyright until 2033 so that people can have a chance to make a little money off them.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

Under the copyright laws in force when it was written, Allen Ginsburg's Howl would enter public domain today, becoming the common property of angel-headed hipsters and shocked bourgeois alike. So would A Long Day's Journey into Night, Look Back in Anger, A View from the Bridge (three theatrical masterpieces), and the concluding volume of C. S. Lewis's Narnia series.

This would be a banner year for Elvis Presley hits, including "Don't Be Cruel," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me Tender." Lots of other early rock-and-roll classics would be entering public domain: "Roll Over Beethoven," "Fools Fall in Love," "Chain Gang," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," and so would Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" and Leonard Bernstein's "Maria." Classical works by Britten, John Cage, Stravinsky and Shostakovich would enter public domain. And a number of musical works adapted from earlier works would join their originals in the public domain: Aaron Copland's Variations on a Shaker Melody, Ralph Vaughan Williams's versions of traditional British folk songs, and the musical My Fair Lady. (If you're keeping score at home, Shaw's Pygamalion entered the public domain on January 1, 1969, and My Fair Lady will stay out of public domain until January 1, 2052.)

The movie versions of The King and I and Around the World in Eighty Days would become public domain today, as would the last films of James Dean (Giant) and Humphrey Bogart (The Harder They Fall), and The Bad Seed, Carousel, Forbidden Planet, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Love Me Tender, High Society, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Moby Dick, Rock Around the Clock, War and Peace, The Ten Commandments, Fellini's La Strada and Bardot star vehicle And God Created Woman.

All of these will remain in copyright until 2052 at the earliest, unless Congress is persuaded to extend copyright beyond a century. It is almost certain that they will be lobbied to do so, and all to likely to comply. But what is certain beyond a doubt is that nothing will enter the public domain next January 1, not even the works from 1923.

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