Blog Post

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

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(s goog) 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:

108 Responses to “No books for you: U.S. starves public domain for another year”

  1. I don’t understand. I bought a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” last week from my local independent bookstore and am enjoying reading it immensely. Please explain how this book isn’t available to me?

    • Jon Long

      tom, did an email circulate among small publishers like you, dan poynter, and Joshua Bodwell telling you all come here and troll?

      Because I find it hard to believe that anyone who works in publishing can fail to comprehend the obvious distinction between a used book with IP still protected under copyright law and a work that has entered the public domain.

      If Atlas Shrugged was public domain Dover could put out low-cost thrift editions. An ebook version would be available free online and from libraries. Assuming authors actually wanted to… they could go ahead and use Ayn Rand’s “characters” in their own fiction in a way similar to what Alan Moore did in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (though this pretty unlikely since Ayn Rand was a horrible person and her “characters” are mostly just soapboxes for her tea party-esque philosophies and most artists despise her work…).

      But here’s the more important question: why are you, poynyer, bodwell, etc so obsessed with this issue? The kind of work you guys do honestly will not be affected by these public domain laws. Look at the very few books from 1957 we’re talking about… these are a handfull of bestsellers, stuff that has entered the cultural zeitgeist. Everything else is lost to the sand of time just like “Doctors, Lawyer, Indian Chiefs” will be. It’s not a knock on you, it’s just a reality.

      The only people who will benefit from this encroachment on the public domain are big corporations like Disney and huge publishing houses, i.e. the companies that are sitting on this very small group of titles people are interested. They’ve already got their army of lawyers and lobbyists trying to steal from the public. They honestly don’t need your help.

    • Ben who do you and fellow commenters (Mark Becker, Ragnar, Chris, etc) work for? A lobbying firm? A PR company? Are you multiple interns or all the same person?

      Because there’s no way you’re real. I’ve never met a single “anti-public domain” zealot like you guys in entire my life. Why? Because they don’t exist. The only people who are anti-public domain are big media companies, their lawyers, and their lobbyists.

      And if there really are a few “anti-public domain” crazies out there, I seriously doubt they’d be congregating in the Gigaom comments board. This is a site that covers news for Silicon Valley types (aka the people pushing for information to be free and open source… the people who invented P2P sharing… the people who have done more to disrupt the copyright and IP status quo in the history of the world). Somehow I don’t buy that 50% + of Gigaom’s commenting readers are actually pro-copyright and anti-public domain. Go troll somewhere else.

  2. danpoynter

    Why should copyright expire at all?
    The author created it and should be able to enjoy what the book earns and be able to pass it down in the family.
    –Fiction is creative entertainment. The copyright should remain with the author forever.
    –Nonfiction is a collection of facts and ideas. Anyone can read parts of the book, rephrase it and use it in a new Work.

    Why take this asset from the author after any period of time?

    –Dan Poynter, Author (133 Books), Publisher (Since 1969), Speaker (CSP).

  3. Ken Cavalier

    Copyright protection is only available for the original expression of an artist or an author, not the idea. Original expression is that which originates with the artist(s) or author(s) of a work. It is not unique and unlike a patent it need not be non-obvious nor unanticipated by anyone skilled in the art. Unlike a trademark copyright need not be “used” in trade or concerned with whether or not it creates any confusion among consumers. Expression is the sum total of decisions made by the author or artist in a new way (choices of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, literary technique, diction, imagery, analogy or even quotation, colour, shading, abstraction, brushstroke, technological manufacture, just to name a few of a myriad of choices). However for expression to exist meaning must be conveyed in some form or another to the audience and that creates a necessary relationship that must be established between the maker of the expression and the receiver of it. Although one might argue that Dadaists and other artists and authors eschew conventional meaning, their expression is marked by the very ambiguity that their expressions created by confounding established cultural expectations among their audiences, perhaps even within themselves. So to sum, artists and authors must mine the raw material of cultural experience and pre-existing expressions in order to convey meaning and create new expressions that can and should be protected by copyright. The raw material is that which is in the public domain. Ken

  4. If we leave the Berne Convention, then anyone outside the US can take any patent, trademark or copyrighted material, even if it was issued this year. That would be a financial disaster bigger than the recent banking crisis. Much bigger.

    Berne requires a minimum of Life plus 50. It took a very long time to get that convention into place, changing it would make solving the MidEast Peace Problem look easy.

    We could go to life plus 50 instead of life plus 70, but it really won’t make much difference. By the time the creators’ have been dead for 50 years, most things have very little value. You can fight for that small change. I won’t be losing sleep over it, though.

  5. J. P. Larson

    I’m sorry, but as an author, I don’t have the slightest problem finding things to write about. Your comment about chilling creativity lacks merit. If I can’t find something to write about, then I have no business calling myself a writer.

    I see absolutely no reason why copyrights should ever expire if their current holders are actively using them. I haven’t heard one single argument why Walt Disney’s various trademarks should become public domain. The concept is ridiculous to me.

    • The simplest argument why Disney should play by the same public domain rules as everyone else is that Disney would not EXIST without public domain.

      Disney’s bread and butter has been updating classic public domain works and putting a Disney spin on them: Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. Pinocchio. Jungle Book. Aladdin. Beauty and the Beast. Hunchback. Lion King (bc it’s really Hamlet). Little Mermaid. Alice in Wonderland. And the list goes on! (go ahead and toss Marvel in there as well: Thor, Loki, Mephisto..) So in response to your points…

      1) if all of the above works had been locked in perpetual copyright by the heirs of the long dead Grimm brothers (who actually took their tales from locals villagers), Victor Hugo, etc, then we would have none of these great movies today. Which is nuts. These are works that have become part of our cultural fabric. They belong to all of us. Think of all the great Disney artists and animators who got to contribute to and embellish those old stories and put new spins on them. Now imagine a world where none of those exist. That’s the definition “chilled creativity” to me.

      2) Disney made its billions plundering the public domain, so arguing that now they shouldn’t have to play by the same rules they exploited isn’t a “ridiculous concept.” It’s common sense.

      And not really apropos of your comments, but one other argument that’s missing in this thread… I think it’s ultimately short sighted of publishers to infringe on public domain like this and in the end they’re only going to hurt themselves. See the Disney examples above, then look at the some of biggest entertainment franchises right now: Tolkien, Narnia, and Harry Potter. All those worlds were populated with public domain characters and races! DC Comic’s Sandman is totally public domain inspired, and they’re currently trying to make it into a huge franchise. Without PD these companies would be out of billions! But they’re too short sighted to see the long term here…

    • RodgerB

      I’m amazed at the number of negative comments directed at this article. The idea of public domain for patents and creative works is a no brainer. It’s been around since Rome. The founding fathers wrote it into our constitution. This isn’t a divisive or “right vs. left” issue. It’s literally the public (aka everyone) vs. a few greedy rights holders who are trying to exploit dead artists and lobby their way around 2000+ years of law and precedent.

      Who are these people siding against the public? I find it hard to believe that many real folks are as “outraged” by the idea of public domain as the commenters on this board. My hope is that these comments are fake and part of some public-opinion influencing PR initiative from the big media companies. It’d be sad, but less sad than if you people are actually real and trying to eradicate public domain. Great plan. And after we’ve torched that right, why not move onto the Bill of Rights? Anyway…

      Great article Jeff. Keep up the good reporting. I’m a writer, and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that public domain infringement does indeed starve the public and chill creativity. I’m all for copyright. My livelihood depends on it), but the lengths these companies are going to to extend it are absurd.

  6. Author gets a bit overzealous with his words
    “US Starves…”

    “…mournful annual report…”

    “…chill creativity…”

    You can buy any of these books for a dollar, or borrow them from a friend or library, anywhere in the United States, isn’t that correct? Im not defending Disney, but to bitch that you can’t legally download Atlas Shrugged for free seems a bit ignorant to resources already available.

  7. hell's coming wit me!

    This just shows how dreadful society has become, they are no longer able to create original works, but require the ability to steal from classics. What will happen will be a corruption of classic literature that will turn into agenda driven dribble by a classless society which lacks morality and creativity.

  8. You mean to tell me that if I want to read a book (and don’t want to visit my public library to borrow it for free), I have to take out my own money and buy it? My goodness, that sounds nearly as corrupt as those greedy ISPs that you blogsters here hate so much for wanting to charge you for what you use instead of getting your neighbor to pay your way. What an awful country we live in. Bring back the USSR, seize everything for collective, and put an end to private property and individual rights once and for all! Viva Chavez!

  9. Actually, even Shakespare’s Romeo and Juliet was inspired on somebody else’s previous work (look it up if you don’t believe it!).

    Copyright protection is fine while the author is alive. I can also agree that it extends some time beyond the author’s death, but endless extensions is pure madness, specially when you can’t even “quote” a manuscript because you don’t have a clue of who owns the copyright 90 years after a book was published. It is also impossible to republish a masterpiece that cannot be found on the market because “somebody” might have the rights for it and the last time it was published was 60 or 70 years ago. Sorry, but that does not help culture a lot.

    Perhaps the law should make a distinction between a work that was developed by a corporation that is still operating (e.g., Disney) and individual authors, as the corporation is still “alive” and might outlive its founder. It might also make sense to require registration of copyright by the author or his heirs, and make sure that such registration is periodically reviewed, or such copyright will expire after a certain time.

    Oh, and by the way, I am a published author, but I don’t think my grand-children or grand-grand-children should have any say on my work (good or bad). Let them write their own stories!

  10. Enigma GG

    I fervently support public domain, it is the creative well that society draws from, it is the legacy from which art is born, every story known is just a retelling. Thanks for the article, well done Jeff.