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Public Domain Day 2015       

Public Domain Day: January 1, 2015 — For Other Eyes Only

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Le Petit PrinceIan Fleming, For Your Eyes OnlyPublic Domain Day is January 1st of every year. If you live in Canada, January 1st 2015 would be the day when the writings of Rachel Carlson, Ian Fleming, and Flannery O'Connor enter the public domain. It will be a not-so-silent spring! In Europe, the works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Edvard Munch, and hundreds of others will emerge into the public domain.1 You can find a great celebration of such authors here. All of these public domain works can be freely digitized and archived, so that anyone can find and use them. Canadians can make their own James Bond movies using Fleming's books and Europeans can add a wealth of works to online archives of 20th century art, all without asking permission or violating the law.

On the first day of each year, Public Domain Day celebrates the moment when copyrights expire. The films, photos, books and symphonies whose copyright term has finished become, to quote Justice Louis Brandeis, “free as the air to common use.” The end of the copyright term on these works means that they enter the public domain, completing the copyright bargain. Copyright gives creators – authors, musicians, filmmakers, photographers – exclusive rights over their works for a limited time. This encourages creators to create and publishers to distribute – that’s a very good thing. But when the copyright ends, the work enters the public domain – to join the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, the books of Dickens – the material of our collective culture. That’s a good thing too! It’s the second part of the copyright bargain; the limited period of exclusive rights ends and the work enters the realm of free culture. Prices fall, new editions come out, songs can be sung, symphonies performed, movies displayed. Even better, people can legally build on what came before.

Professor Jennifer Jenkins, Director of the Center for the Study of the Public DomainIn Ambiguous Battle: The Promise (and Pathos) of Public Domain Day (12 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 1) by Center Director Jennifer Jenkins reveals the promise and the limits of various attempts to reverse the erosion of the public domain.

What is entering the public domain in the United States? Not a single published work. Once again, however, no published works are entering the public domain in the United States this year. Or next year. In fact, no publication will enter our public domain until 2019.2

It’s a Wonderful Public Domain… What happens when works enter the public domain? Sometimes, wonderful things. The 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain in 1975 because its copyright was not properly renewed after the first 28-year term. The film had been a flop on release, but thanks to its public domain status, it became a holiday classic. Why? Because TV networks were free to show it over and over again during the holidays, making the film immensely popular. But then copyright law reentered the picture… In 1993, the film’s original copyright holder, capitalizing on a recent Supreme Court case, reasserted copyright based on its ownership of the film’s musical score and the short story on which the film was based (the film itself is still in the public domain). Guess what happened? Significantly limited distribution—NBC was granted exclusive rights to broadcast the movie, and only showed it a few times a year. Creativity was limited too: a recent effort to make a sequel (featuring Karolyn Grimes, who played George Bailey’s daughter in the original movie) was blocked in 2013.

When the first copyright law was written in the United States, copyright lasted 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author wished. Jefferson or Madison could look at the books written by their contemporaries and confidently expect them to be in the public domain within a decade or two. Now? In the United States, as in much of the world, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus another 70 years. You might think, therefore, that works whose authors died in 1944 would be freely available on January 1, 2015. Sadly, no. When Congress changed the law, it applied the term extension retrospectively to existing works, and gave all in-copyright works published between 1923 and 1977 a term of 95 years. The result? None of those works will enter the public domain until 2019, and works from 1958, whose arrival we might otherwise be expecting January 1, 2015, will not enter the public domain until 2054. In addition to lengthening the term, Congress also changed the law so that every creative work is automatically copyrighted, even if the author does nothing.

What do these laws mean to you? As you can read in our analysis here, they impose great (and in many cases unnecessary) costs on creativity, on libraries and archives, on education and on scholarship. More broadly, they impose costs on our collective culture. We have little reason to celebrate on Public Domain Day because our public domain has been shrinking, not growing.

Works that could have entered the public domain on January 1, 2015What Could Have Been

It didn’t have to be this way. As you can read in our analysis of the subject, if we had the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1958 would be entering the public domain. They range from the books Our Man in Havana, The Once and Future King, and Things Fall Apart, to the films Gigi and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to the songs Yakety Yak and All I Have to Do Is Dream. Have a look at some of the others. In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1986 might be entering the public domain! Imagine what the great libraries of the world – or just internet hobbyists – could do: digitizing those holdings, making them available for education and research, for pleasure and for creative reuse.

For the works that are still commercially available, the shrinking public domain increases costs to citizens and limits creative reuse. But at least those works are available. Unfortunately, much of our cultural heritage, perhaps the majority of the culture of the last 80 years, consists of orphan works. These are works that have no identifiable or locatable copyright holder. Though no one is benefiting from the copyright, they are unavailable: it is presumptively illegal to copy, redistribute, or publicly perform them.

…And What Can Be Done About It

Does all this mean that copyright is a bad system? Of course not. Copyright serves an important purpose in facilitating the creation and distribution of creative works. The basic principles of our copyright system are sound. But studies like the recent Hargreaves Review commissioned by the UK government, empirical comparisons of the availability of copyrighted works and public domain works and recent economic studies of the effects of copyright (other articles are here and here) all suggest that lengthy copyright extensions impose costs that far outweigh their benefits. In fact, economists who have modeled the ideal copyright term have uniformly suggested that it should be far shorter than it is right now. Some have suggested that it should be as short as 15 years. And every economic study has concluded that if there are to be copyright term extensions, they should not be retroactive.

What can be done about all this? One obvious first step is legal reform that would give greater access to orphan works. The US Copyright Office has renewed its efforts to find solutions to the orphan works problem. Authors and creators can also choose to license their work under more generous terms than standard copyright through Creative Commons licenses (for works like books, movies, music and art) or free and open source licenses for software. These open licenses create a privately constructed commons in which all can share freely. Fundamentally, though, the key is public education about the delicate balance between intellectual property and the public domain. That is the goal of our Center.

You can learn even more about the public domain by reading our Frequently Asked Questions page, and from scholarly literature on the subject, including David Lange’s seminal 1981 article “Recognizing the Public Domain” and James Boyle’s book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008). Naturally, you can read the full text of The Public Domain online at no cost and you are free to copy and redistribute it for non-commercial purposes. You can also read a short article in the Huffington Post celebrating a previous Public Domain Day.


1 Canada's term is life plus 50 years, so the works of authors who died in 1964 will enter the public domain on January 1, 2015 (the beginning of the year after copyright expiration). The European Union has a term of life plus 70 years, meaning the works of authors who died in 1944 go into the public domain in 2015. However, it is often very hard to determine if a particular work is in the public domain. The public domain works we mention are based on the assumption that the named author is the copyright holder and that the term is life plus fifty or seventy years.

2 No published works will enter the United States public domain until 2019. However, a subset of works – unpublished works that were created by authors who died in 1944 and were not registered with the Copyright Office before 1978 – will be entering the public domain this year. But, because these works were never published, potential users are much less likely to encounter them. In addition, it is difficult to determine whether works were “published” for copyright purposes. Therefore, this site focuses on the millions of published works that will not be entering the public domain.


Special thanks to our tireless and talented research maven and website guru Balfour Smith.

Creative Commons LicensePublic Domain Day 2015 by Duke Law School's Center for the Study of the Public Domain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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