Monday, January 6, 2014

Public Domain Day

This could have gone into the public domain this year, if Congress hadn't changed things back in 1976.
January 1st was Public Domain Day, the day when works whose copyright term has expired move into the public domain. So, what went into the public domain this week? Anything? Besides Sherlock Holmes, not much. Because the 1976 copyright act and extensions (life + 70 years for individual owners, 95 for corporate copyrights), the next big date is January 1, 2019, when some works from 1923 finally make the transition, unless the Disney lobby convinces Congress to push those dates back. Again.

What could have entered the public domain with the pre-1976 copyright law revision? Well, works from 1957, which are highlighted in this article from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain commemorating Public Domain Day. The site also remarks on the advantages of moving works to the public domain earlier.

Here's a quote from the article specifically about musical theater:

The musical “West Side Story” (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents) made its Broadway debut in 1957. Would “West Side Story” have been legal if Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was under copyright at the time? Probably not. And, of course, if copyright existed in Shakespeare's time, as Judge Richard Posner observed, “Romeo and Juliet itself would have infringed Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeo and Juliet .  . . which in turn would have infringed several earlier Romeo and Juliets, all of which probably would have infringed Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Artists build upon the past. Creativity depends upon a healthy public domain.
If you want to fight for more reasonable copyright limits, here's a blog post from Everybody's Libraries about what you can do. If you want a in-depth example of the problems of overprotection, check out this investigative audio report from On The Media about the famously and speciously copyrighted song "Happy Birthday." Yup, the song you know and sing all the time.

What do you think about copyright? Is U.S. copyright law too protective, not protective enough, or just right?

At some point in the future, I'm planning to write posts on related topics of copyrighting music, parody law, and fair use. If you want to hear about one of these first, comment below. Just in case you are wondering, though, a disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer.

Vocab: copyright, parody

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