Yesterday on January 1, lots of people around the world celebrated Public Domain Day along with the new calendar year. The Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain publishes an article on it each year. Each year since they’ve done so, it’s been less celebratory in the U.S. than in other parts of the world.
What is entering the public domain in the United States? Not a single published work. Once again, no published works are entering our public domain this year. Or next year.
When the first copyright law was written in the United States, copyright lasted 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author wished. Jefferson or Madison could look at the books written by their contemporaries and confidently expect them to be in the public domain within a decade or two. Now? In the United States, as in much of the world, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus another 70 years. You might think, therefore, that works whose authors died in 1946 would be freely available on January 1, 2017. Sadly, no. When Congress changed the law, it applied the term extension retrospectively to existing works, and gave all in-copyright works published between 1923 and 1977 a term of 95 years. The result? None of those works will enter the public domain until 2019, and works from 1960, whose arrival we might otherwise be expecting January 1, 2017, will not enter the public domain until 2056.
If you think this is silly and unimportant, allow the scholars at Duke to convince you.
As our way-too-nearly-president would say, sad.