Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Your New Year's Public Domain Report, 2014

It's January 1 again, the day when works enter the public domain because their copyright expired at last year's end. And yet again, because of repeated extensions to the length of copyright, nothing at all entered the public domain in the United States. Almost nothing has since January 1, 1979.

American copyright law started out by specifying a 14-year term, renewable once to provide 28 years of exclusive protection. That was very much in line with the original 18th-century copyright laws in Britain. By 1976, that 28 years had crept up to 56. But that year Congress passed a new copyright act, extending terms to either fifty years after the author's death or (in the case of previously existing copyrights) 75 years from the work's creation. The law didn't go into effect until 1978, and copyrights that expired in 1978 weren't protected.  So on January 1, 1979, works published in 1922 entered the public domain. Works published in 1923 did not, and still haven't.

Even with that extension, those works from 1923 would have become public on January 1, 1999. But in 1998 Congress passed another extension, variously nicknamed the Millennium Copyright Act or the Sonny Bono Act (after one of its sponsors), which added another 20 years to copyright terms. Now previously-copyrighted works stayed in copyright for 95 years. As we get closer to 2019, we can expect intense lobbying by large media companies to pass yet another extension, defying the Constitution's mandate that intellectual property be protected for "for a limited time." (Article I, section 8, clause 8.)

So there's nothing in under our public-domain tree this morning. But let's look at what would have become public domain if not for these laws.

If not for the Milennium Copyright Act:

The big story would be Superman, who debuted in 1938, becoming public domain this morning. Lois Lane would also become a public-domain character, like Ophelia, Guinevere, or Elizabeth Bennett. (Under the laws in effect when they were created, Superman, Clark, and Lois would actually have become public domain in 1995.) Other characters and story elements from the Superman universe would remain in copyright for a bit longer, so Kryptonite and X-ray vision would be under copyright but the original core character would not.

Orson Welles's famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds would also become free for anyone to broadcast or reproduce.

This would be a banner year for screwball comedy fans and Errol Flynn buffs. Howard Hawks's classic Bringing Up Baby would leave copyright today, as would George Cukor's Holiday, also starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. That's a lot of screwball romance right there. And four Flynn pictures, including Dawn Patrol and The Adventures of Robin Hood would become public domain as well. Robin Hood remains public domain; Flynn's Robin Hood won't be until 2034.

Also entering public domain today would be Alfred Hitchock's The Lady Vanishes,Cagney and Bogart in Angels with Dirty Faces, Fred and Ginger in Carefree, Marx Brothers classic Room Service, and Boys Town starring Spencer Tracy. Not a bad year for classic Hollywood.

In the world of literature, Thornton Wilder's Our Town would become public domain today, as would John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy, and T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone. Also becoming public would be various works by Virginia Woolf (Three Guineas), C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet), Graham Greene (Brighton Rock), and Evelyn Waugh (Scoop). Joining them would be Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn and Sartre's Nausea, the last novels Nabokov wrote in Russian (Invitation to a Beheading and The Gift), and Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

The public domain would be enriched by some classic pop songs, including "This Can't Be Love," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Hooray for Hollywood," and "Jeepers Creepers." Cole Porter was having another great year in 1938, adding "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love," "At Long Last Love," and "Get Out of Town" to the American songbook. Those songbook standards should be public domain today. In the classical world, Copland's Billy the Kid and Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 1 should leave copyright. And in the other world of classical music, the public domain should be welcoming Count Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside," Ray Noble's "Cherokee," and Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss."

According to Congress, no one has had a fair chance to make a profit off these works yet, and they will stay in copyright until at least 2034.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

The Cat in the Hat and the Grinch should enter public domain today. The animated cartoons featuring them would not, but the books The Cat in the Hat! and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! would, and with them the characters and their distinctive images.

Some of the other books entering the public domain would include Endgame, Dr. Zhivago, Atlas Shrugged, From Russia with Love, The Wapshot Chronicle, The Balcony by Genet, Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending and John Osborne's The Entertainer, Asimov's The Naked Sun and Malamud's The Assistant. Stevie Smith's Not Waving But Drowning and Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency would enter the public domain along with various poems by Wallace Stevens, H. D., Richard Wilbur, Marianne Moore, Ted Hughes, and Robert Penn Warren.

Among the films newly available in public domain would be Bridge on the River Kwai, Pal Joey12 Angry MenOld Yeller, The Sweet Smell of Success, Jailhouse Rock, The Pajama Game, An Affair to Remember, Gunfight at O. K. Corral, Funny Face, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Three Faces of Eve, Love in the Afternoon, the original 3:10 to Yuma, the Hammer Studios Curse of Frankenstein, Jimmy Cagney playing Lon Chaney in The Man of a Thousand Faces, Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. An embarrassment of riches.

Fans of early rock and roll would have an even greater haul. "Lucille," "Tutti Frutti," "Blueberry Hill," "At the Hop," "Bye Bye Love," "Come Go with Me," "Great Balls of Fire," "Reet Petite," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" represent only a few of the highlights. Even the number of major Elvis hits that would be entering the public domain -- "All Shook Up," "Jailhouse Rock," "Teddy Bear" -- is overshadowed by the number of Buddy Holly's song's due for public domain: "Peggy Sue," "Every Day (It's a Gettin' Closer)," "Not Fade Away," "That'll Be the Day." There are also major hits from a broader pop-vocal tradition: "Chances Are," "Wonderful, Wonderful," "Not for Me to Say," Nat King Cole's "You Send Me" and Sinatra singing "Witchcraft." But the very biggest story of all would be two classic Broadway musicals entering the public domain with all their songs: not only The Music Man but West Side Story. "Maria," "America," "Officer Krupke," and all the rest of those songs would be free for anyone to perform or record.

However, all of those works will remain in private hands, usually meaning in the practical control of large corporations engaging in rent-seeking behavior, until 2053 at the earliest. Apparently, none of them count as classics yet. If you don't want to wait even longer than 2053, tell Congress next time copyright-extension time comes along.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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