As they do every year, unfortunately, the good folks at the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke have put together a depressing list of what should have entered the public domain yesterday. As you hopefully know, until 1978, the maximum amount of time that work in the US could be covered by copyright was 56 years (you initially received a 28 year copyright term, which could be renewed for another 28 years). That means, back in 1957, everyone who created the works in that list knew absolutely, and without a doubt that their works would be given back to the public to share, to perform, to build on and more… on January 1, 2014 at the very latest. And they all still created their works, making clear that the incentive of a 56 year monopoly was absolutely more than enough incentive to create.

And yet, for reasons that still no one has made clear, Congress unilaterally changed the terms of the deal, took these works away from the public, without any compensation at all, and will keep them locked up for at least another 40 years. At least.

The website lists out books, movies, music and much more that is locked up away from the public for no good reason at all. In the books, there are works such as:

  • Jack Kerouac, On the Road (completed 1951, published 1957)
  • Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  • Margret Rey and H.A. Rey, Curious George Gets a Medal
  • Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat
  • Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, The Untouchables
  • Studs Terkel, Giants of Jazz
  • Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley, The Three Faces of Eve
  • Ian Fleming, From Russia, with Love

The list of movies is quite impressive as well. Imagine the kind of creativity that would be unleashed if people could take clips from the following list of films and mash them up into something new and wonderful. While I’m sure some folks (including, perhaps, folks reading this right now) could make something amazing out of mashing up clips from many of these works, you’d be making a very risky bet on fair use protecting you — and even if it did, you might still have to face an insanely costly lawsuit first.

  • The Incredible Shrinking Man (Based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 book The Shrinking Man)
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean), Best Actor (Alec Guinness); also starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins and Sessue Hayakawa)
  • A Farewell to Arms (Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones)
  • Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas)
  • 3:10 to Yuma (1957 original starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin)
  • Island in the Sun (James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Dorothy Dandridge, and introducing Harry Belafonte)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester)
  • 12 Angry Men (Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, and more)
  • Sweet Smell of Success (Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis)
  • Jailhouse Rock (Elvis Presley)
  • The Prince and the Showgirl (Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe)
  • Funny Face (Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire . . . and Paris as only Hollywood can imagine it)
  • An Affair to Remember (Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr . . . and the Empire State Building)
  • Nights of Cabiria (written and directed by Federico Fellini and starring Giulietta Masina)
  • The Seventh Seal (written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Max von Sydow and Bengt Ekerot)
  • What’s Opera, Doc? (Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd do Wagner)
  • The first episodes of Leave It to Beaver and Perry Mason
  • Elvis Presley’s third and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 6, 1957

There’s plenty of some of the most influential American music from the early days of rock and roll as well.

If you wanted to find guitar tabs or sheet music and freely record your own version of some of the influential music of the 1950s, January 1, 2014, might have been a booming day for you under earlier copyright laws – “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” (Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison, and Norman Petty), “Great Balls of Fire” (Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer), and “Wake Up, Little Susie” (Felice and Boudleaux Bryant) would all be available. You could score a short film with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor (Opus 103; subtitled The Year 1905). Or you could stage your own performances of some of Elvis Presley’s hits: “All Shook Up” (Otis Blackwell and Elvis Presley) and “Jailhouse Rock” (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). Today, these musical works remain copyrighted until 2053.

They further note that the classic musical West Side Story came out in 1957 as well. It should be in the public domain. But it’s not.

And it’s not just arts and entertainment. The post points out plenty of science and technology is still locked up thanks to all of this.

1957 was a noteworthy year for science: the USSR launched Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, IBM released the first FORTRAN compiler, and the UK’s Medical Research Council published an early report linking smoking and lung cancer. There were groundbreaking publications in the fields of superconductivity and astrophysics such as “Theory of Superconductivity” by John Bardeen, L.N. Cooper, and J.R. Schrieffer and “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars… ” by Geofrey Burbidge, Margaret Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle.

They further make an important point that while the works listed above grab all the attention, because they were so successful, the real shame is in lots of other works that are simply not available at all any more. And this would likely include all sorts of works from 1985. After all, works created in 1985, if created under the old law, would have been given an initial 28 year copyright term, which would also be expiring, and if history is any guide, the vast majority of those would not have their copyrights renewed. Instead, they’re locked up… and quite frequently completely unavailable, with a very real risk of being lost to history.

The really crazy part about all of this is that it’s the exact opposite of the entire original purpose of copyright. Copyright law was put in place specifically to encourage the creation of works that would be put into the public domain to promote learning, knowledge and understanding. Yet, instead, it’s been distorted, twisted and misrepresented into a system that is used solely to lock stuff up, make it less accessible and less available, limiting the ability to promote knowledge and learning. What a shame.

The Grinch Who Stole The Public Domain

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