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!)
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.