Public Domain Day Highlights What Could Have Been Free

By Wesley Fenlon

Public Domain Day is an annual reminder of how absurdly long copyright terms are in the United States.

The Searchers. Forbidden Planet. The Ten Commandments. Godzilla: King of the Monsters. What do these movies have in common? Well, they're some of the most famous movies ever made: a landmark western, a sci-fi classic, a 1950s epic, the beginning of a cultural icon. All four share another similarity: on January 1st, 2013, they would have entered the public domain under United States copyright law as it existed before 1978.

January 1st, aka Public Domain Day, marks a depressing annual celebration (mourning?) of works that would've become part of the public domain if the US congress didn't pass the Copyright Act of 1976. The act, which went into effect two years later, extended copyright from its existing 28 years (plus an option of renewal for a second 28 years) to 50 years after the life of the author. That period has since been extended to author's life plus seventy years.

Creative works released in 1956, like the Gregory Peck-starring Moby Dick, Billie Holiday's Lady Sings the Blues, and Philip K. Dick's Minority Report would all have wrapped up their 56 years of copyright protection at the end of 2012 and hit the public domain on January 1st. The Center for the Study of the Public Domain highlights the ridiculousness of 70+ year copyrights, pointing out that "85% of authors did not renew their copyrights (for books, the number is even higher – 93% did not renew), since most works exhaust their commercial value very quickly." By pre-1978 law, up to 85 percent of copyrighted works created by 1984 would now be in the public domain.

As the law stands now, many works created in the 1950s received a copyright extension to 95 years, meaning they won't hit the public domain until the 1950s. The Public Domain Information Project highlights the absurdity of copyright duration with a good news/bad news breakdown on its website:

  • The Good News: Works Published in the United States in 1922 or Earlier are in the Public Domain even though they are not yet 95 years old
  • The Bad News: No new works will enter the public domain until January 1, 2019, when 1923 Works become PD

Books, films, and music aren't the only works worth mourning, either. The first issue of MAD Magazine would've hit public domain today, as well as the first issue of New Scientist. Many, many forgotten films may disintegrate on storage room shelves before their copyright term is up and they are digitally archived. The same could eventually happen to video games.

It's not all bad news. Creative Commons celebrates Public Domain Day by pointing to ongoing efforts to preserve and distribute creative works, and other countries with shorter copyright terms have cause to celebrate. If you live in Canada, the works of William Faulkner are now part of your public domain.