Happy Public Domain Day! Or is it?

Today isn’t just the start of a new year, it’s Public Domain Day in the United States. Works from 1927 enter the public domain today, making them free to copy, share and remix.

Some heavy hitters in the mix this year, including Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s The Big Four, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (music and words) by Irving Berlin. (But the iconic number from Young Frankenstein with Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle is still under copyright.)

Really, it’s less cause to celebrate and more an occasion to note what’s been stolen from the public. Thanks to Congress extending the already too-generous 75 year copyright term to 95 years, works that should’ve been in the public domain 20 years ago are just now seeing copyright expire. The copyright holders, for the most part, had expired long before the copyright did.

A. A. Milne died in 1954, but Now We Are Six enters the public domain 95 years after it was published. Franz Kafka’s Amerika enters the public domain, but Kafka died in 1924. Lot of good the additional 20 years did him!

Irving Berlin, likewise, died in 1989 and didn’t live to see the original expiration date in 2003, much less 2023. And so forth.

This is, of course, U.S.-centric. As The Public Domain Review points out, most of Europe, the U.K., and South America have a “life plus 70 years” which means works by people who died in 1952 are public domain there, in 2023. For New Zealand, and a lot of Africa and Asia it’s an even more reasonable “life plus 50 years,” so creators who passed in 1972 see their works enter public domain this year in those countries.

It’s a mess. There’s no reason copyright should outlive a creator by 50 or 70 years, much less 95. The vast majority of works under copyright aren’t even being published 20 years after creation, much less 50, 70, or 95. Not one of the world’s most pressing problems, but one we ought to fix.

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