On January 1, 2014, thousands of works of art, literature, music, photography, and film were supposed to enter the public domain — to be used and modified by anyone for any purpose. Classic books like The Cat in the Hat, From Russia With Love, and On the Road; and landmark films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men were all set to have their copyright protections expire, but it didn’t happen. In fact, nothing has entered the public domain in over a decade and nothing will until 2019 at the very earliest.
It all started with a mouse. Walt Disney created the character Mickey Mouse in 1928, when he had his debut in the cartoon short Steamboat Willie. Under the U.S. Copyright Law of 1976, the character was supposed to have copyright protection for 50 years after the death of his creator. But in 1998, five years before the expiration of their copyright, the Walt Disney Company, worried about losing control of a brand worth an estimated $3 billion a year, successfully lobbied Congress to extend all U.S. copyrights for an additional 20 years. This act of Congress shut off the flow of works into the public domain for the next two decades and ushered in some of the strictest copyright terms in the world.
Under current law, the artistic commons of our society withers while trusts and corporations get rich off the work of people who have been dead for nearly a hundred years. Without works regularly passing into the public domain, we are losing a valuable wellspring of inspiration.
Public domain works can be digitized by libraries; are available for free use in education and research; and can be adapted, translated, reused, or incorporated into new creative works. Under current law, a musical like West Side Story, which is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, could never exist (at least not without bankrupting the author with exorbitant usage fees).
Copyright law in the United States is enshrined in the Constitution, which directs Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In 1790, copyright protections lasted just 14 years, with an option to apply for a 14-year extension. It was never intended as a way to permanently grant artists, inventors, and their heirs exclusive use of their creations. Over time, copyright terms were extended. By the mid-19th century, U.S. copyright was 28 years. Those terms remained largely unchanged until 1976, when a major overhaul of copyright law changed the protections to the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. Those terms were then stretched to the author’s lifetime plus 70 years with the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998.
That’s when publishers, trusts, and estates got involved, and keeping a work under copyright protection through lobbying and legal action became big business. Now, I’m not opposed to an author having sole rights over their endeavors — creative professionals should absolutely be able to make a living off their work — but is it really necessary for corporate interests to retain control of a book, play, or musical composition seven decades after the author is dead? At that point is it really about protecting artists from intellectual theft and promoting progress in science and art as the framers of the Constitution intended? Or is it just about money?
If copyright terms keep getting extended, there may come a day when the public domain simply ceases to exist in this country. If I publish a novel and go on to live into my 90s, the rights to my book will be owned by someone until sometime around the year 2150 — long after I’m no longer around to collect royalties. Generations of talented artists would be missing out on the opportunity to build upon the legacy of their forebears. And we are missing out on their creative leaps of imagination.
It’s time to reclaim our stories. It’s time to roll back copyright terms to a reasonable length that still protects authors but prevents corporations from profiting off of them in death. It’s time for the Grinch, James Bond, and Dean Moriarty to join the ranks of Tom Sawyer, Hester Prynne, and Count Dracula in the public domain.
Because these characters and these stories don’t belong to publishers, they belong to all of us.
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Jonny Eberle is a public domain fanatic, writer, podcaster, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA. If you liked this post, please subscribe to my monthly email newsletter. Thanks for reading!
Update: Since the publication of this article, new works have entered the public domain every year since 2019. As of 2022, thousands of artistic works first published in the 1920s have had their copyright protections expire, including cultural icons like A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and the majority of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
Barring another extension of U.S. copyright terms, which seems unlikely in our current era of congressional gridlock, the original incarnation of Mickey Mouse (not the wide-eyed, white-gloved, happy-go-lucky character we know today), who first appeared in Steamboat Willie in 1928, is due to enter the public domain on New Year’s Day 2024.