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    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.


    Wasn't it called the Disney Gift or some such?

    And we are not even into the talkies yet?

    Democracy in my opinion only works with the free and open exchange of information.

    Used to be 35 years if I recall.

    Patents were 17 years with one re-up.


    I mean we live in an era of info that never could have been predicted.


    On the other hand, what does letting a copyrighted piece of work enter the public domain do but allow for it to be butchered, borrowed and / or manipulated by any lazy artist wannabe or corporate slug that wants to make a quick buck?   How does Public Domain re-structuring make for a better system of  protecting an author's legacy, the work itself?    I understand the argument that authors long dead should not keep making a profit off a work, and that their heirs having an annuity stretched on forever seems unfair, but I don't get how shortening the copyright law makes the work safer from people who would plunder it for their own self-aggrandizement and profit.  Why should they not be made to write their own original work?  

    In your posting you refer to many of the works by the name of their creator; Allen Ginsberg's Howl or Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  How would letting these works into the public domain affect the reputations of the creators associated with the works?   Does that count for nothing?  Just another long dead author, what does it matter?  Would you allow that ownership of a painting means something?  Would you like to allow for every painting over 100 years old to be declared to be in the public domain?  The Louvre would be empty ... and the paintings would all be on Ebay.  LOL    

    I just don't understand what tangible positive benefits would come from making the public domain laws weaker ... other than as spite against the snotty grandchildren of great authors.   To me, it would just mean the corporate pricks would steal works quicker and violate the spirit of classic pieces of literature sooner.   How is the public served by that?




    Right. Rip-off artists like Leonard Bernstein, who plagiarized Romeo and Juliet for West Side Story, and Aaron Copland ripping off Shaker hymns.

    And of course Walt Disney, who ripped off the Brothers Grimm to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He should never have been allowed to get away with that.

    I don't think you understand at what point the corporate pricks jump into the process. They're already there. The super-long copyrights are for the corporate pricks' benefitand they're the ones who lobbied for them.

    Everyone talk about how terrible it is when works fall out of copyright, and what terrible rip-offs and bastardizations occur. What they don't do is:

    1) point to any of those terrible things actually happening in the period before 1979. If having copyright last only 56 years is such a nightmare, the period from 1790 to 1979 should be full of horror stories. Where are they?

    2) talk about the number of horrible bastardizations and rip-offs authorized by the license-holders. Those authorized sequels to Gone with the Wind are rip-offs. The various authorized Philip Marlowe sequels are bad ideas. Extended copyright actually made them happen.

    Why is Peter Jackson's version of the The Hobbit three bloated movies? Because he is safe from competition. No one else can film that book, so no one can do it the sensible way. Maybe people would still prefer Jackson's triple-album free-jazz odyssey. But we'll never know.

    Why does the only version of Long Day's Journey Into Night you can order for a college class come with an introduction by a famous scholar who 1) doesn't know anything about the play, or Eugene O'Neill, or 20th-century American drama and 2) openly dislikes the play, Eugene O'Neill, and 20th-century American drama? Because its copyright is held by a famous university, who decided to have their most famous literature professor write the intro, and no one can publish a better edition.

    Why did some of Hemingway's kids just rewrite his memoir to make their mother look better? Because no one can publish the earlier version of the memoir without their permission.



    "protecting" the "legacy" from... what?

    There are thousands of copyright-expired works in the Louvre. They are still in the Louvre, disproving your point - whatever that was supposed to be.

    Ownership of a painting and ownership of the copyright of an image of a painting are two different things, just like if you buy a book at a bookstore, you own the book, but that doesn't mean you own the copyright to the book.

    Mr. Smith, it's not just parodists and hacks who are prevented from using copyrighted material.  It's also scholars.  I've just finished editing an anthology for a prestigious academic press, a survey of a particular kind of poetry through three thousand years.  No one's gonna make money from this project:  not the press, which took on the project for its academic merits, and certainly not me:  I was responsible to pay for all reprinting permissions costs out of my own pocket.  The material in the first 2900 years of the anthology I could use without paying anyone any licensing fees.  But the stuff since 1923?  Wowza!  The initial bill for that material was $54,000.  Out of my own pocket.  I cut a bunch of poetry that really would have made the book better, and pleaded with presses to lower their rates, and have ended up accountable for ONLY....wait for it....$22,000.  To publish an anthology that, again, will make money for no one.  Why did I do it?  Because the book deserves to exist, and will be helpful to those who use it.  But copyright laws turned me into a philanthropist for the public intellectual good.  Of course Wallace Stevens is awesome and should have been rewarded handsomely for his good work, and ditto T. S. Eliot.  But those folks are long dead, and it's really mostly just Random House/Bertelsman/whatever other international conglomerate that's benefiting financially from their work now.  It really would be better if the world could benefit more expeditiously from it instead. 

    What Renaissance Girl said.

    Excellent points.  I thank you and Dr. Cleveland for giving me a better understanding of this issue.  

    P.S.  The West Side Story analogy should use Arthur Laurents, since he wrote the book. ;-)


    P.S.S.  I did actually have an experience with this.  When I first set out to try to write plays, I was still an actor and thought that I would try to write a play that I could 'star' in.  I decided that since I had always loved the radio comedian Fred Allen, and could do a really good impression of him, that I would write a play about his life.  I struggled along and eventually came up with a pretty good draft.  I tried contacting his widow, who was still alive at the time, but got a very curt letter in reply from her second husband, who wrote that she was not interested in giving permission to anyone to use any of Fred's material.  Fred, of course, had died in 1956, and this was probably around 1983 or 84.   If the Life plus 25 years rule had applied back then ... well, I might have become the toast of Broadway.  hahahaha  

    Parodists are not prevented from using copyrighted material, see 2 Live Crew vs Roy Orbison.

    Though, in many cases they put constraints on themselves, or the industry constrains them.  I believe that Weird Al recently killed a Lady Gaga parody because ol meat dress takes herself too seriously.

    That's Ms. Ol' Meat Dress to you ...

    Right. Weird Al never actually relies on his first-amendment right to parody, but always pays for permissions. The obvious reason is that this is easier (and cheaper) than being sued.

    Where the line is drawn in practice is significantly more favorable to plaintiffs (i.e. big corporations with lots of copyrights) than the actual letter of the law. Because being sued is expensive in its own right, so people fear giving anyone grounds for even a crappy lawsuit. (If someone sues you and loses, you still lose a lot of money in legal fees.)

    Look, Woody Allen totally has the legal right to have one of his fictional characters quote a famous line by a famous writer. But Faulkner's estate is suing Sony pictures because on of the characters in Midnight in Paris quotes Faulkner, by name. And so Sony pictures has to defend itself in court.

    Could the future of self published e-books change the publishing corporations' hold on the copyrights? The reason I bring this up is because pirating on the internet did not hurt Hollywood's banner profits this year. I also know public libraries are wondering what their role will be in the future. Will copyrighted e-books owned by publishing companies be too costly for libraries to lend? How will technology change the current system?

    You know, lots of people have talked about how new technologies would weaken copyright. But copyright has actually grown much more restrictive as new technologies have emerged, with copyright covering more things and being policed much more fiercely. Things that were obviously fair use twenty-five years ago are now things that you can be sued over.

    This is part of a longer historic pattern: new transmission technologies have led to an expansion of owner's legal rights. (Music copyrights became much stronger when recorded music became available, for example.)

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