The public domain is set to expand once again

Smithsonian magazine reports on an unfortunately unusual occurrence set to happen this coming New Year’s Day.  For the first time since 1998, the copyright on many works is expiring, thus adding to the public domain.

My reaction to this: About. Damn. Time.

Disney has led the copyright lobby and could be said to have literally turned copyright into a Mickey Mouse operation (Steamboat Willie, the first appearance of Mickey,  is not set to enter the public domain for another five years). These works should have hit the public domain long ago, and the stroke of midnight signaling the beginning of 2019 can’t come soon enough to actually make this official.

If you want a real eye-opener, start with the Statute of Anne and follow copyright law through to the present day. The original term of copyright was 28 years–the latter 14 of which returned to the author no matter what. Given the rapid obsolescence of modern electronic media, I have to wonder just how much sense the current term of decades after the life of the author makes in the present day. (The public domain becomes moot when the original physical media from a century ago has long since become unreadable and obsolete. Okay, so the copyright restrictions on that VHS tape have finally expired in 2080, now it’s unplayable and the supply of VHS VCRs worldwide is down to maybe a couple of hundred, so what the hell are you going to do with it? We’ve already seen this problem with the nitrate film stock used for early silent movies.)

For quite a few more years we will start seeing works enter the public domain every January 1. Indeed, it will actually be a happy new year every year for some time, though we need to stay vigilant and keep Disney (and the other large media companies that form the copyright lobbby) from ruining it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.