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Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Shrinking World of Public Domain

Most writers and editors have at least a general awareness of how copyright law has been transformed in recent decades. But for a down-to-earth sense of the practical implications of the change, check out this site created by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University Law School.

Among other things, the site lists some of the thousands of works--books, plays, films, songs, and so on--that would have gone into the public domain as of January 1, 2011, under traditional (pre-1978) copyright law, but which will remain under legal control by the creators' estates or some corporate entity until 2050 under current law.  The list includes copyrighted works published during the year 1954, ranging from William Golding's Lord of the Flies and the classic films Rear Window and The Seven Samurai to the plays Waiting for Godot and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  (Traditional copyright law protected works for 28 years after their creation, with a possible extension for another 28 years upon request.  The full 56 years of protection would have expired for these works at the end of 2010.)

The copyright law has been rewritten (most recently in 1998) to lengthen the period of protection up to a maximum of 120 years after creation in the case of corporate-owned "works for hire."  The 1998 copyright law is sometimes referred to as "The Mickey Mouse Protection Act" because one of the major forces behind it was the Walt Disney Company, which was eager to prevent films featuring its famous rodent from entering the public domain.

Opinions may differ, but I for one would like to see a return to the traditional standards of copyright protection.  Publishers have long been free to create new editions of classics like Pride and Prejudice and the works of Shakespeare, with the result that these works are available at very low cost in dozens of formats and styles.  To me, there's no reason why the same shouldn't be true for classic works of the twentieth century as they gradually pass the old 56-year yardstick.  Wouldn't our cultural heritage be enhanced by (for example) making it possible for high school, college, and community theatre groups to stage Waiting for Godot and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as freely as they can The Importance of Being Earnest?

Remember, the purpose of copyright law is to encourage artistic creation.  If copyright protection were abolished, or limited in some very draconian fashion--trimmed back to five years, say--it would clearly have a detrimental impact on writers' incentives to produce.  But does anyone really believe that Samuel Beckett or Tennessee Williams would have felt motivated to write more or better plays if only they'd known that their heirs would still be collecting royalties into the 2040s?


  1. Read Lewis Hyde's most recent book, Common As Air--a great, well-researched and considered discussion of this subject.

  2. I just ordered it. Hyde's THE GIFT is a classic and a book that has shaped my thinking profoundly on a number of subjects. Thanks.