The public domain black hole


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January 1 of each year is Public Domain Day, the day we should celebrate works entering the public domain. Unfortunately, in the US there will be nothing to celebrate until 2019. So instead, let's talk about how that happened.

Think of what you know about copyright--how you get one, how long it lasts, what that means. Now think about how it originally worked in the US:

  • It lasted 14 years. 
  • It was opt-in, in today's parlance. You had to claim your copyright.
  • If you wanted another 14 years, you had to renew it. (This was updated to 28+14 only 40 years later in 1831.)

None of those things are true anymore. Copyrights are automatic, last closer to a century than a decade or two, and you have to actively opt out if you'd rather publish your work more freely.

If the original terms were still true, we can factor in another fact: 85% of creators didn't renew their copyrights. For book authors, it was even higher--93% didn't renew. We can then estimate that under the 28-year rules, 93% of the books written in 1981 would have entered the public domain this year. They would have been freed for you to adapt into plays and movies, republish in uncommon forms like braille, or make available to more eyes through methods like Project Gutenberg.

But because of seemingly endless extensions of copyright law, we are now in what's often called the "public domain black hole," an empty time when nothing will be added to the public domain in the US until 2019.

Interested in learning more?

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8 Comments

K-Jow's picture

I've always wondered why a company like Disney can swipe a story like Cinderella from the public domain, and then copyright it so that no one else can build upon their story, for now and forever.

Am I missing something?

Jon's picture

The story is still completely free for you to use, however their exact wording is copyrighted.

Unidentified's picture

Disney only gets copyright in the derivative work so only what they do that qualifies for copyright protection is covered by copyright everything else you can use

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

K-Jow--Disney's relationship with US copyright law is worth an entire post of its own. It's not entirely true to say that they own the entire concept of every classic (public domain) story they co-opt. Here's the story of Mulan--the Disney version and others:

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1944598,00.html

But part of the purpose of the public domain is to encourage future creativity, so I can't entirely fault them for using it. Like I said--this could be an entire discussion of its own. I'll put it on my to-do list.

ielsedoudi's picture

My only positive out of all this is just how powerful a message you send by opting out of having your work copyrighted.

2019, I'll be waiting for you (assuming we're still around after 2012).

Unidentified's picture

I have to wonder if future creativity is really stifled or if it means that the price to bring those creative works to market is more expensive since permission and royalties get involved.

Harry's picture

Do you think it will ever stop being just about money? I hope so.

Altay's picture

It is disgusting to see that such an Orwellian term as 'Intellectual property' has gained a stranglehold over the world.

A Copyright or Patent is nothing more than a government sanctioned thought-monopoly license. It has no place in a free society and can never exist in a free market. Copyrights and Patents are government force, pure and simple.

Today, If you don't have the government's permission to write certain words or use certain lines of code, men with guns will come after you.