Happy New Year, TeleReaders! As we do every year, as we look forward to new things in future days to come, we also take a look back at the past, at all the works that rightfully should have made it into the public domain by now, if not for the copyright term extensions fomented by Disney to keep Mickey Mouse under lock and key. Duke Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain has a report on Public Domain Day 2016, describing works that would have entered the public domain under copyright law as it existed in 1978.
There are many well-known works listed here, including Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Walter Miller’s classic religious SF tale A Canticle for Liebowitz, Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. On the movie side, a number of classic films would have made it, including Ben-Hur, North by Northwest, Sleeping Beauty, and Rio Bravo. A number of musical compositions are also included, most notably the original Broadway version of The Sound of Music. Under modern copyright law, It’s going to be another 39 years until these works see the light of day—assuming Disney doesn’t pull another fast one.
It’s bad enough that we lack access to these works—but other countries, such as Canada, are more fortunate. For the moment, anyway. While recounting a list of what Canada gets today that we don’t, Cory Doctorow points out that if Canada signs onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, it will be forced to harmonize its copyright laws with the American “life + 70” version, meaning that after this year, no further works would enter the public domain in Canada until 2036.
One work that’s particularly contentious, as Joanna mentioned a couple of months ago, is Anne Frank’s diary. The Frank estate attempted to extend the copyright by adding Frank’s father to the work as a co-author and so setting back the clock on the 70-years-after-death-of-the-author copyright expiration. It looks like that attempt will have to be litigated, as Dutch sites have already started posting the original Dutch version of the diary’s text. (Translations would have separate copyrights pinned to the death dates of the translators.) Ironically, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf enters the public domain in Europe on the very same day.
The great thing about the public domain is that those works can be freely distributed instantaneously as e-books, bringing them to attention of thousands who could never have afforded to buy them, or been able to see them out in a public library. As such, it’s sadly ironic that Disney put a lock on the public domain right before e-books had their big breakthrough. Hopefully someday these repressive laws can be rolled back. Until then, we just have to hope that the Trans-Pacific Partnership doesn’t throw a monkeywrench in the works of copyright reform, and that Disney isn’t able to extend them yet again.