No books for you: U.S. starves public domain for another year

Cat in the Hat

A new year means a new batch of copyrights expire, and works like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Bell Jar become as free to use as Charles Dickens or Shakespeare. Unless you happen to live in the United States, that is.

As Duke University notes in its mournful annual report, no books will enter the public domain this year, or next year, or the year after that.  This situation is the result of Congress’s decision to add another 20 years of protection for long dead authors, which means that no new works will become public until 2019.

As a related Duke article points out, famous 1957 titles like On the Road, Atlas Shrugged and The Cat in the Hat would have entered the public domain if the US had retained its pre-1978 copyright system, which granted protection for up to 56 years. Canada, meanwhile, has stuck with a “life of the author plus 50 years” rule, which means the public there — starting January 1 — can print or perform works by C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath (both died in 1963)

So why has the public domain dried up in the United States? The technical answer is a 1998 law that increased copyright terms to 95 years or more for works published after 1923 (you can get specifics from this excellent chart). But the more subtle answer is that the US government succumbed to lobbying efforts by Walt Disney and other powerful content owners that demanded ever-longer monopolies for their intellectual property.

The result is a copyright system that’s impossible to defend on economic or policy grounds. While copyright itself is a good thing — it helps artists and writers make a living — the repeated posthumous term extensions make no sense. No author, including Ayn Rand and Dr. Seuss, has made a decision on whether or not to write based on what will happen decades after they’re dead.

And while the extended copyright terms benefit the likes of the Walt Disney corporation (and the grasping heirs of Martin Luther King), they deprive everyone else of raw material for new stories and chill creativity with the threat of lawsuits.

If you prefer to look for bright spots, you can find them: courts in 2013 confirmed that the bulk of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, and a fair use decision on Google Books increased our access to knowledge. But last year also brought bad news too as the Supreme Court allowed Congress to remove even more works — including Pippi Longstocking and Peter and the Wolf — from the public domain, and legal scholars fretted that Disney will obtain another 20 years protection for Mickey Mouse.

As the debate rumbles on, you can reflect on some of the other works that would have entered the public domain. Via Duke:

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