Monday, January 05, 2015

Your New Year's Public Domain Report, 2015

I'm late with my annual public-domain update this year. But that's okay because yet again this year, nothing new entered the public domain this January 1. That's right, because of repeated extensions of the copyright laws in the US, no copyrights expired this year. Or last year. Or the year before.
Almost none have 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 major headline this New Year's Day would have been Batman 's entry into the public domain. Batman would be on his own for a while, without famous supporting characters like Robin, the Catwoman, or the Joker, but they would be entering public domain in 2016 and 2017. For this year, it would just be Batman and Commissioner Gordon. Under the laws in force when he debuted of course, Batman would have become public domain in 1996. I'd like to say better late then never, but late is threatening to turn into never.

At the movies, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would all become public domain this year. So would the rest of the many, many great films produced in 1939, including Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Goodbye, Mr Chips, Wuthering Heights, and Dark Victory. And let's not forget Beau Geste, Babes in Arms, At the Circus with the Marx Brothers, Gunga Din, Each Dawn I Die, The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton, Ninotchka, Intermezzo, of Mice and Men, The Women, Son of Frankenstein, old Dr. Cleveland favorite The Roaring Twenties with James Cagney, and of course Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights. Installments in the Thin Man, Andy Hardy, Charlie Chan, and Mr. Moto series would leave copyright, as would classic serials starring Zorro, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, and the Lone Range;postID=470211736745711182r.

 In music, "God Bless America" should enter the public domain this week, as should another important American classic: Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit." Also in popular music, "Back in the Saddle," "All of the Things You Are," "At the Woodchopper's Ball," "Brazil," "Go Fly a Kite," "Heaven Can Wait," "I Get Along Very Well Without You," "In the Mood," "The Lamp is Low," "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," "Over the Rainbow," "Moonlight Serenade," "South of the Border," "When You Wish Upon a Star," and "Tuxedo Junction" would all enter public domain. So would Cole Porter's "Darn That Dream," "Give Him the Oooh-La-La," "I've Got My Eyes on You," and "Well, Did You Evah?" -- not necessarily Porter's best year, but pretty good for the rest of us. In classical music, Shostakovich's 6th Symphony, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky and William Wallton's Violin Concerto would all be leaving copyright.

Finnegans Wake, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and The Grapes of Wrath should be entering the public domain. So should Johnny Got His Gun, The Big Sleep, The Day of the Locust, Goodbye to Berlin, Tarzan the Magnificent, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, At Swim-Two-Birds and Saint-Exupery's Sun, Wind, and Stars. Mystery novels by Eric Ambler, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and three by Agatha Christie would become free from copyright. Brecht's Galileo, Hellman's Little Foxes, and Eliot's Family Reunion would become free for all to perform, as would The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Time of Your Life, Arsenic and Old Lace, and The Philadelphia Story. Poems by Frost, Auden, May Sarton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dylan Thomas, Archibald MacLeish, Muriel Rukeyser, and Louis Macneice would enter public domain, as would the last of Yeats's poems and Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the children's book that became the musical Cats.

 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 2035.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

Chinua Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart would be entering public domain, as would Suddenly, Last Summer, Krapp's Last Tape, The Unnameable , The Dharma Bums, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Playback, Our Man in Havana, Pinter's The Birthday Party and of course Dr. No. So would poems by William Carlos Williams, e e cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Muriel Rukeyser, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, John Betjeman, and Djuna Barnes.

Among the films newly available in public domain would be Vertigo, Gigi, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, South Pacific, No Time for Sergeants, Aunti Mamie and The Vikings. Also entering public domain would be The Blob, The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Hercules, Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, The Fly, The Touch of Evil, The Revenge of Frankenstein, and Run Silent, Run Deep.

It would be a banner year for fans of early rock and roll, with new public-domain hits like "Johnny B. Goode," "Chantilly Lace," "16 Candles," "All I Have to Do Is Dream," "Donna," "Do You Want to Dance?," "Maybe Baby," "Yakety Yak," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "The Summertime Blues," and of course, "The Flying Purple People Eater." Folkies would get public-domain access to Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" and "Kumbayah." Also in pop music, "Volare" and the themes from Rawhide and Peter Gunn would enter public domain. So would classical pieces by Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, and John Cage.

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 2054 at the earliest. Apparently, none of them count as classics yet. If you don't want to wait even longer than 2054, tell Congress next time copyright-extension time comes along.

cross-posted from Dagblog

No comments: