Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain shared a list of works that could have entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2012 – under the law that existed until 1987. It features works like Rebels Without A Cause, The Body Snatchers and Tolkien’s The Return of the King, to name just a few.
US copyright law in 1978 protected cultural works for 28 years after publication, with an option to add another 28 years. Now that period has been lobbied to a ridiculous 70 years – after the death of the author.
Think about this for a moment: Instead of making sure the author gets a certain window of opportunity to exclusively exploit their work commercially (in other words: to make some money of their work in order to produce more), that right now extends pretty much indefinitely and can be transferred to an heir or, as far as I know, even a company.
This, of course, is good news for the rights holders. It also means tremendous losses for society, producers of culture, innovation, and any one of us. These works can’t be used, can’t enrich our culture. They are, for lack of a better word, locked away. And a good chunk don’t even have a known author who might profit of their copyright, they’re so-called orphan works – author unknown, work inaccessible.
And here’s some concrete numbers from Duke:
If the pre-1978 law were still in effect, we could have seen 85% of the works created in 1983 enter the public domain on January 1, 2012. 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. Think of the cultural harm that does. In addition, because most of these works are orphan works — works that are still presumably under copyright, but commercially unavailable and with no identifiable copyright holder — no one is benefiting from continued protection, while the works remain both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits.
Think of the damage. In fact, read about the damage. The Duke article refers to two articles that tell a pretty clear story:
- The Chronicle: Out of Fear, Colleges Lock Books and Images Away From Scholars
- ABA Journal: A Trove of Historic Jazz Recordings has Found a Home in Harlem, But You Can’t Hear Them
There’s not that much we can do about copyright as it is, except to bring it up with your local law maker of choice. And, of course, to support those who fight the good cause here, namely organizations like the EFF – have you donated yet?