Sunday, January 01, 2017

Your Public Domain Update for 2017

Happy New Year all! As every year, I'm writing a blog post for Public Domain Day, listing all of the old books, movies, pieces of music, and works of art that are leaving copyright to join the public domain today. And, as every year in the United States, that list contains nothing at all. Public Domain Day is for people in other countries. Instead, we get Congress repeatedly extending the copyright terms to keep lobbyists for big media companies happy, so that virtually nothing has entered the public domain in the United States since January 1, 1978. So, as every year, I have to write a post about what would be entering public domain today.

Copyright in this country originally had a 28-year maximum, which gradually got doubled to 56 years (originally it was 14 years, renewable for a second 14, and then 28 renewable for 28 more). In the 1970s, Congress extended the term of copyright, freezing the public-domain clock so that nothing created after 1922 would become public for decades. That clock has never been restarted: just before the newer, longer copyrights could expire at the end of the 1990s, Congress extended them again with the Millennium Copyright Act, sometimes called the Sonny Bono act for one of its sponsors. The Constitution specifically forbids perpetual copyright; it only gives Congress the power to grant patents and copyrights for a "limited time." But Congress has gotten around this by simply granting one "limited" extension after another, so that Mickey Mouse (for example), stays in private ownership forever.

So, what are we missing?

If Not for the Millennium Copyright Act:

Citizen Kane would enter the public domain today. Let's just leave that one there for a minute: Citizen Kane

Also in the movies, we would get public rights to Dumbo, The Maltese Falcon, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Babes on Broadway, Charlie Chan in Rio, Abbot and Costello classics Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost!, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Devil and Miss Jones (the Devil got a lot of work in 1941, and not just in Hollywood), Hellzapoppin', High Sierra, The Lady Eve, The Little Foxes, Major Barbara, Meet John Doe (which is feeling pretty topical right now), Moon Over Miami, Pimpernel Smith with Leslie Jones as the fearless Scarlet Pimpernel, The Road to Zanzibar with Hope and Crosby, Sergeant York, The Sea Wolf, The Shadow of the Thin Man, Sullivan's Travels, Hitchcock's original version of Spellbound, Tarzan's Secret Treasure, Tobacco Road, and The Wolf Man. Oh, and lest we forget, 1941's Oscar winner for Best Picture, How Green Was My Valley. (Better luck next time, Orson! Maybe your cinematography should have been more innovative!)

Wonder Woman should be leaving copyright today, free for anyone to write and draw. (So that someone, for example, could create a version of the world's mightiest woman who was not dressed like a streetwalker.) So would a host of Golden Age comic heroes, including Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Green Arrow, Aquaman, and lesser-known heroes such as Starman and Dr. Mid-Nite. (If you don't know who those are, well, my brother would never let me hear the end of it if I left them out.) Bad guy the Penguin would join Batman, Catwoman, and the Joker, who would already be in the public domain, so someone writing public-domain Batman would be able to add a Penguin storyline.

Beloved children's books Curious George and Make Way for Ducklings would become public domain today. So would Mother Courage and Her Children, Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, The Screwtape Letters, Evil Under the Sun, Between The Acts, My Theodosia, and What Makes Sammy Run? So would two personal favorites of mine: Borges's The Garden of Forking Paths and Nabokov's first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

In music, we would hit another motherlode of American standards: "Blues in the Night," "Baby Mine," "Chattanooga Choo-choo" and "The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy," "All That Meat and No Potatoes," "God Bless the Child," "Deep in the Heart of Texas," "I Could Write a Book," "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Knock Me a Kiss," "Introduction to a Waltz," "Let's Get Away from It All," "So Near and Yet So Far," "Winter Weather," and, of course, the song that I believe should be our national anthem, "Take the 'A' Train." And for classical music fans, works by Bartok, Barber, Britten, Copland, Messiaen, Rachmaninoff and Schumann would all become free for public use.

But clearly, Congress has decided that works created in 1941 just haven't been under copyright long enough. Has anybody made any money off "Take the 'A' Train" yet? Or off Wonder Woman? We're just going to have to wait another twenty years for these intellectual properties to become public properties, or to have Congress pass another law keeping them private. The smart money is on the extension.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird would enter public domain today under the laws that governed its initial publication. So would Updike's Run, Rabbit and Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham. Likewise The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor, The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, Sylvia Plath's Colossus and Other Poems, and Walter M. Miller's science fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. It would be a banner year for public-domain drama: Rhinoceros, A Man for All Seasons, Pinter's The Caretaker, Albee's The Sandbox, and the stage version of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. 

But it would be an even bigger year for classic movies: Spartacus, Psycho, The Apartment, La Dolce Vita, BUtterfield 8 and The Magnificent Seven would all enter public domain. So would Inherit the Wind, The Alamo, the original Ocean's 11, Exodus, The Bad Sleep Well, Elmer Gantry, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Hell Bent for Leather, the Vincent Price House of Usher and Roger Corman Little Shop of Horrors, The Swiss Family Robinson, Where the Boys Are, and The Unforgiven.

Plenty of Broadway musicals would enter public domain this year, too: Camelot, Oliver!, Bye-Bye Birdie, The Fantasticks, Flower Drum Song, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. (That, Lin-Manuel, is what a Tony awards night with some suspense looks like.)

A huge number of pop hits would also become public domain today, exactly as they were expected to when they debuted. Crooner favorite "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" would leave copyright along with "Chain Gang," "Apache," "Calendar Girl," "Cathy's Clown," "I Gotta Know," "I'll Be There," "It's Now or Never," "Money (That's What I Want)," "Only the Lonely," "Spanish Harlem," "You're Sixteen," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," "When Will I Be Loved," "The Twist," and "Save the Last Dance for Me." Pretty good jukebox. Also the novelty songs "Alley-Oop," and "Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini," for anyone still interested in them. There would also be a good deal of interesting classical music, maybe most importantly Shostakovich's string quartets 7 and 8 and Messiaen's Chronochromie.

But all of those works will stay firmly in the hands of Sony, Disney, Time Warner, etc., until at least 2056. Someone needs another 39 years of royalties from Camelot, evidently, which would clearly be more productive than just letting people do Camelot, or even alter Camelot.

The good news is that the public domain clock, which has not ticked since January 1, 1979, is set to start ticking again two years from today, on January 1, 2019. On that day, if Congress does not intervene again, works published in 1923 will become free to the public. (Whose woods these are I think I know: They'll likely keep them private, though). Expect a bill to be before Congress before 2018 is over, and write to your representative and senators to tell them that sometimes, art has been in private hands long enough.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

No comments: