Another Year with Nothing added to Public Domain

Another year and nothing has entering the public domain. Duke Law puts out a list each year of what may have been. Here is this year’s list. There is another article on Techdirt with more discussion on this matter.

Under the laws they were created under, these works, such as Lolita, Return of the King and “Unchained Melody” would all be public domain. Instead along comes the Sonny Bono copyright extension act and all of that changed. The thing about copyright extensions is this: it robs us, the public, from our culture. That is why it is called “The Public Domain.”

The bad part isn’t really how this affects things like Steamboat Willy, or any of the great movie or book classics. These things are still available to the public no matter what media we are using. We will get “Gone with the Wind” in any new media format that comes around.

The bad parts are the things that are not. There are stores of warehouses full of Jazz recordings or silent films that are rotting because they cannot be released or archived under the current copyright laws. TV shows, radio broadcasts, almost 100 years of culture locked away for no good reason.

And when I say ‘rotting’, I mean it. The film and tape from that era is degrading at a rapid rate. True the Jazz museum is archiving, but because of unclear copyright law, the only way to hear these pieces is at the museum itself.

Like the jazz Led Zeppelin blatantly copied from, but gave no attribution to. Or how about this, which shows scenes from Star Wars and the other movies that, sometimes shot for shot, copies from. Pays “homage” to, I think that is the word…

Art isn’t created in a vacuum. As members of culture we are absorbed in it, we build on it in our ever day lives. The dangers of more modern copyright enforcement is not that expression of an idea is owned, it is the idea itself can be owned. One cannot copyright, patent, trademark, etc, an idea. (Despite attempts and some success at doing so) One can only do those things to a specific implementation of that idea, and that monopoly has a finite time. That is the deal we make with creators. We, society, give the creator a limited monopoly to make money, and then after that, the creation is released to everyone.

Before this? Before ~1600’s when copyright laws were started? There were none. Zip. Nada. And yet somehow there was a lot of art being created. There were a lot of things invented. Did people copy? Sure, just listen to classical music, those guys “sampled” from everyone.

But the biggest argument of why these things should have entered into the public domain, rather than retro-actively had their copyrights increased is simple: that was the law they were created under. These artists, writers, musicians, saw no reason to hold back their creative endeavors because they had a maximum of 56 years (you had to renew your copyright to maintain it back then) of monopolistic control over their work. Now that monopoly isn’t even with the artist anymore. Most are owned by companies, or run by estates. But to what end?

Who is benefitting from the Return of the King being under copyright until 2043? Not us, the public, that is for sure.

Oh, and in Europe? James Joyce has entered public domain this year. This will make his novels and plays free to Europe for production, citation, even remixing, reimagining, and free distribution. I suspect in protest he will never write another book.