Works that would be in the public domain today -- if America hadn't extended copyright terms in 1976

In 1976, the US Congress decided to extend the copyright on works that had been created with the understanding that they would enter the public domain after about 56 years (depending on whether the copyright was renewed after 26 years). This decision set the stage for a series of subsequent copyright extensions, each one coinciding, roughly, with the imminent entry to the public domain of the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons. Effectively, the public domain has ended

Every year, Jennifer Jenkins and James Boyle at the Duke Center for the Public Domain publish a list of works that could have entered the public domain on Jan 1, were it not for the 1976 Act. James notes, "as always, scifi seems to dominate. Points to notice... Minority Report would have been in the public domain, Around The World in 80 Days -- the movie -- should have been Around The World in 34,699 Days."

What books would be entering the public domain if we had the pre-1978 copyright laws? You might recognize some of the titles below.

* Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume I and Volume II
* Philip K. Dick, Minority Report
* Ian Fleming, Diamonds are Forever
* Fred Gibson, Old Yeller
* Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues
* Alan Lerner, My Fair Lady
* Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night
* John Osborne, Look Back in Anger
* Dodie Smith, 101 Dalmatians

Here are a few of the movies that we won’t see in the public domain for another 39 years.

* Around the World in 80 Days
* The Best Things in Life are Free
* Forbidden Planet
* Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
* It Conquered the World
* The King and I
* The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake by Alfred Hitchcock of his 1934 British film)
* Moby Dick
* The Searchers (1956 film version with John Wayne from Alan Le May’s 1954 novel)
* The Ten Commandments (1956 version by Cecil B. DeMille, who also directed a similar film in 1923)

There's lots more, and it's a fascinating and sad read, especially the scientific material that may never become truly free and open knowledge.

Before 1976, US copyright law was primarily about incentives: "We'll give you X years of copyright, and that will serve as incentive for you to create." But extending the copyrights on works that had already been created can't provide any sort of incentive: "We'll give you more copyright on works you've already made, and you will travel backwards in time and make more works, knowing that the term-extension is a-comin'." Extending copyright terms on works that haven't yet been created might arguably provide the incentive copyright was meant to provide ("if you'll write three books with 56 years of copyright, would you write four if I gave you life-plus-seventy years?") but giving existing works more years of exclusive monopoly can't possibly incentivize anything, unless you're a time-traveller (In which case you don't need incentives because you inhabit a non-causal universe where effects don't need to have causes).

So what the 1976 Act did was officially shift the American copyright system from one of incentives to one of deserved rewards. "You slaved so hard over this work, it isn't just that you should receive only 56 years of copyright to it -- here, have another 20 years! Well done!" This is the most profound shift in US copyright history, a change from monopoly as the necessary evil that society puts up with in order to set creativity in motion to the just and obvious recognition due to people in exchange for their labor.

What Could Have Entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2013? (Thanks, Jamie!)


  1. Break out your Ouija boards, folks, there’re a lot of dead content creators who I’ve been assured by 100% trustworthy lobbyists are mighty incentivized to produce new and exciting work thanks to their extended copyright terms. Somebody had better get ready to channel it for them…

  2. Odd isn’t it that something like Velcro®’s patent has run out, but its name is protected for quite a while yet.

    1. Velcro(r) is a trademark. It lasts forever as long as it’s used to refer to a specific brand of hook-and-loop fastener. It has absolutely nothing to do with copyright and the public domain.

      1. Renewing your trademark registration (also called a “Section 9” filing) is required by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for trademark owners to maintain their trademark rights. If your trademark has been registered for 9 years, it’s time to file a renewal—you have one year following that 9-year anniversary to renew. Following your first renewal, renewals are required every 10 years. All renewals, should be filed as Combined Section 8 Declaration/Section 9 Renewal. If no renewal is filed, registration will be lost.Trademark’s that are not renewed become public domain. I’ve also heard of cases where trademark’s have been lost or technically lost due the the owner not protecting it or through the trademark becoming so ubiquitous that it can’t be protected – Thermos and Kleenex have had run in’s this way.

        1. True, what I was getting at is the fact that trademark and copyright are different. If you’re punctual and a branding a-hole who sues whenever your trademark is misused, you can keep your trademark indefinitely long, and that really isn’t a bad thing as long as trademark remains a consumer protection tool.

          1. Agreed. But there is still a problem with trademarks – they can be bought and applied to inferior products. Read a bunch about Pyrex® in particular and several other companies that were sold and then the quality went to hell – usually because it was outsourced a short time later.

          2. I suspect that it would be deeply impractical; but it would be rather interesting if trademarks that were established to connote certain things were required to continue to do so, even against the owner’s wishes…

            At present, the customer-protection aspect prevents any non-owner from using the trademark in a deceptive manner; but it doesn’t place any restrictions on the owner(aside from their desire not to sully it, and any incidentally applicable consumer protection/warranty regulations).

            Imagine, hypothetically, if it were the case that establishing ‘Pyrex(r) brand thermal-shock resistant borosilicate glassware’ made attaching the ‘Pyrex’ name to some other article, even if you were the owner of the trademark, a deceptive act…

          3. Yeah, but can’t that also count as brand dilution in a sense? If you license your trademark to every Tom, Dick and Harry, doesn’t your mark stand a chance of becoming too ubiquitous as well?

  3. I think we should go back to the Edict of Anne, the English copyright law the original US laws were based on. You get 28 years. That’s a long time. If you’re gonna be broke after that 28 years is up, your lazy ass should have done something else in that 28 years you had. 

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