Current US law extends copyright for 70 years after the date of the author's death, and corporate "works-for-hire" are copyrighted for 95 years after publication. But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years—an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. Under those laws, works published in 1958 would enter the public domain on January 1, 2015, where they would be "free as the air to common use." Under current copyright law, we'll have to wait until 2054.
What books and plays would be entering the public domain if we had the pre-1978 copyright laws? You might recognize some of the titles below.
- Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
- Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French), Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn
- Simone de Beauvoir, Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée(Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)
- Michael Bond, A Bear Called Paddington, with illustrations by Peggy Fortnum
- Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American
- Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's
- Agatha Christie, Ordeal by Innocence
- John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society
- Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie Structurale (Structural Anthropology)2
- Mary Renault, The King Must Die
- Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
- T.H. White, The Once and Future King
What a trove of books—imagine these being freely available to students and educators around the world. You would be free to translate these books into other languages, create Braille or audio versions for visually impaired readers (if you think that publishers wouldn't object to this, you would be wrong), or adapt them for theater or film. You could read them online or buy cheaper print editions, because others were free to republish them. (Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see here, here, and here.) Imagine a digital Library of Alexandria containing all of the world's books from 1958 and earlier, where, thanks to technology, you can search, link, annotate, copy and paste. (Google Books has brought us closer to this reality, but for copyrighted books where there is no separate agreement with the copyright holder, it only shows three short snippets, not the whole book.) You could use these books in your own stories—The Once and Future King was free to draw upon Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (a compilation of King Arthur legends) because Malory's work was in the public domain. One tale inspires another. That is how the public domain feeds creativity. Instead of seeing these literary works enter the public domain in 2015, we will have to wait until 2054.
Consider the variety of films from 1958 that would have become available this year. Fans could share clips with friends or incorporate them into homages. (There are certainly some fantastic candidates.) Community theaters could show the full features. Libraries and archivists would be free to digitize and preserve them. Here are a few of the movies that we won't see in the public domain for another 39 years.
- Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a low-budget horror/sci-fi cult hit.
- Auntie Mame, starring Rosalind Russell, Coral Browne, Roger Smith, and Peggy Cass.
- The Blob, sci-fi/horror classic starring Steve McQueen in his first leading role.
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives.
- The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis, and Theodore Bikel.
- From the Earth to the Moon, starring Joseph Cotten, George Sanders, and Debra Paget.
- Gigi, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jourdan. The film garnered 9 Academy Awards.
- Mon Oncle, writer/director Jacques Tati reprises his comic alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot, and wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
- Some Came Running, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine.
- South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, directed by Joshua Logan, starring Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor.
- Touch of Evil, written and directed by Orson Welles, starring Welles, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh.
- The Young Lions, starring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Dean Martin.
- Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes.
These works are famous, so we're not likely to lose them entirely—the true tragedy is that of forgotten films that are literally disintegrating while preservationists wait for their copyright terms to expire.
What 1958 music could you have used without fear of a lawsuit? 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, 2015, might have been a rocking day for you under earlier copyright laws – "Johnny B. Goode" (Chuck Berry), "Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu)" (Domenico Modugno, F. Migliacci, Mitchell Parish (English translation)), "Yakety Yak" (Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller), "Chantilly Lace" (Big Bopper), and "Purple People Eater" (Sheb Wooley) would all be available. You could stage your own public performances of "All I Have To Do Is Dream" (Felice and Boudleaux Bryant), "It's Only Make Believe" (Conway Twitty & Jack Nance), or "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" (Jack Clement). Or you could score a short film with some of the amazing music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Tito Puente. Today, these musical works remain copyrighted until 2054.
1958 was another noteworthy year for science: the US launched the Explorer 1, its first successful satellite, which confirmed the existence of the Van Allen radiation belt. The first integrated circuit was demonstrated. There were groundbreaking publications in the fields of laser technology and cloning.
If you follow the link from "cloning" above (and you do not have a subscription or institutional access), you will see that this 1958 article is behind a paywall. You can purchase it for $32. A distressing number of scientific articles from 1958 remain behind paywalls, including those in major journals such as Science and JAMA. You can't read these articles unless you pay or subscribe. And the institutional access that many top scientists enjoy is not guaranteed—even institutions such as Harvard have considered canceling their subscriptions because they could no longer afford the escalating prices of major journal subscriptions.
It's remarkable to find scientific research from 1958 hidden behind publisher paywalls. Thankfully, some publishers have made older articles available in full online, so that you can read them, even though it may still be illegal to copy and distribute them. In addition, some older articles have been made available on third party websites, but this is not a stable solution for providing reliable access to science. Third party postings can be difficult to find or taken down, links can get broken, and would-be posters may be deterred by the risk of a lawsuit. Under the pre-1978 copyright term, all of this history would be free to scholars, students, and enthusiasts.
Not all scientific publishers work under this kind of copyright scheme. "Open Access" scientific publications, like those of the Public Library of Science, are under Creative Commons licenses, meaning that they can be copied freely from the day they are published.
Most of the works highlighted here are famous—that is why we included them. And if that fame meant that the work was still being exploited commercially 28 years after its publication, the rights holders would probably renew the copyright. (This is true for most of the works featured on this page, though even the shorter copyright term exceeds the commercial lifespan of a surprising percentage of successful works.) But we know from empirical studies 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.
That means that all of these examples from 1958 are only the tip of the iceberg. If the pre-1978 laws were still in effect, we could have seen 85% of the works published in 1986 enter the public domain on January 1, 2015. Imagine what that would mean to our archives, our libraries, our schools and our culture. Such works could be digitized, preserved, and made available for education, for research, for future creators. Instead, they will remain under copyright for decades to come, perhaps even into the next century.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current copyright term is that in most cases, the cultural harm is not offset by any benefit to an author or rights holder. Unlike the famous works highlighted here, the vast majority of works from 1958 do not retain commercial value, but they are presumably off limits to users who do not want to risk a copyright lawsuit. This means that no one is benefiting from continued copyright, while the works remain both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits. The public loses the possibility of meaningful access for no good reason.
You can read more about the current costs associated with orphan works—works that are still presumably under copyright, but with no identifiable or locatable copyright holder—here and here. Importantly, the US Copyright Office has renewed its efforts to find solutions to the orphan works problem.
This post first appeared on the Center for the Study of the Public Domain's website and is republished here under Creative Commons license.