Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dead Hands Reach Out from the Past

Corporate greed has gotten the US Congress to change copyright to make it last longer and longer and longer. Here are some bits from an excellent post by Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain:
Current US law extends copyright protection for 70 years after the date of the author’s death. (Corporate “works-for-hire” are copyrighted for 95 years after publication.) 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 1955 would be passing into the public domain on January 1, 2012.

What might you be able to read or print online, quote as much as you want, or translate, republish or make a play or a movie from? In this centennial year of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic (April 15, 1912), how about Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember? Lord first published A Night to Remember in 1955. If we were still under the copyright laws that were in effect until 1978, A Night to Remember would be entering the public domain on January 1, 2012 (even assuming that Lord or his publisher had renewed the copyright). Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2051. This is because the copyright term for works published between 1950 and 1963 was extended to 95 years from the date of publication, so long as the works were published with a copyright notice and the term renewed (which is generally the case with famous works such as this). All of these works from 1955 won't enter the public domain until 2051.


Most of the works highlighted here are famous — that is why we included them. And if that fame meant that the work was still being exploited commercially 28 years after its publication, the authors would probably renew the copyright. (This is true for many of the works featured on this page, though even a surprising percentage of successful works exhaust their commercial potential very quickly.) 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 all these examples from 1955 are only the tip of the iceberg. If the pre-1978 law were still in effect, we could have seen 85% of the works created in 1983 enter the public domain on January 1, 2012. Imagine what that would mean to our archives, our libraries, our schools and our culture. Such works could be digitized, preserved, and made available for education, for research, for future creators. Instead, they will remain under copyright for decades to come, perhaps even into the next century. Think of the cultural harm that does. In addition, because most of these works are orphan works — works that are still presumably under copyright, but commercially unavailable and with no identifiable copyright holder — no one is benefiting from continued protection, while the works remain both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits. (You can read more about the current costs associated with orphan works here and here.) It seems that The Public Domain Snatchers is not the stuff of fiction.
These "property rights" stolen from the public are just one more example of how the ultra-rich buy politicians to write laws that that enrich the rich at the expense of the 99%. They have literally stolen the cultural patrimony and locked it up and demand big bucks to access what rightfully should belong to everybody.

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