Between my consumer's interest in ebooks and my work on digitizing local history materials, I read quite a bit about copyright issues. This article on Public Domain Day really brought home to me how much modern copyright law locks away from the reading public:What Could Have Been Entering the Public Domain on January 1, 2010? Under the law that existed until 1978 . . . Works from 1953.
Current US law extends copyright protections for 70 years from the date of the author's death. (Corporate "works-for-hire" are copyrighted for 95 years.) 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 1953 would be passing into the public domain on January 1, 2010.
This Center for the Study of the Public Domain (CSPD) article mentions many movies and musical compositions that would be in the public domain by now, but it was the list of books that really gave me a jolt:
- Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March
- Ray Bradbury's dystopian novelFahrenheit 451
- C.S. Lewis'sThe Silver Chair
- J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories
- James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain
Even more surprising to me is this tidbit:
All of these works are famous--that is why we included them here. And the authors of famous and commercially successful works would probably renew the copyright for a second term of 28 years. But we know from the Copyright Office 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 under the law that existed until 1978, up to 85% of all copyrighted works from 1981 would be entering the public domain on January 1, 2010.
These works are still presumably under copyright...but they are commercially unavailable and the copyright owner cannot be found. They probably comprise the majority of the record of 20th century culture (one study indicates that only 2 percent of works between 55 and 75 years old continue to retain commercial value). The default response of archivists, libraries, film restorers, historians, artists, scholars, educators, publishers, and others is to avoid using copyrighted works unless they are clearly in the public domain. As a result, orphan works are not used in new creative efforts or made available to the public due to uncertainty over their copyright status, even when there is no longer anyone claiming copyright ownership, or the owner no longer has any objection to such use. The costs here are huge: needlessly disintegrating films just when technology would allow for their preservation, prohibitive costs for libraries, incomplete and spotted histories, thwarted scholarship, digital libraries put on hold, delays to publication. In the cases where the work is truly an orphan work, those costs are tragic because they are completely unnecessary: no one is benefiting from the continued copyright protected over these works, while the entire public loses the ability to adapt, transform, preserve, digitize, republish and otherwise make new and valuable uses of them.