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What Could Have Entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2012?

Under the law that existed until 1978 . . . Works from 1955

Works that could have entered the public domain on January 1, 2012
The End of Eternity, The Body Snatchers, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It, Rebel Without a Cause, Lady and the Tramp, To Catch A Thief, Picasso’s Don Quixote, Tutti Frutti, and more . . . 1

Current US law extends copyright protection for 70 years after the date of the author’s death. (Corporate “works-for-hire” are copyrighted for 95 years after publication.) But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years (an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years). Under those laws, works published in 1955 would be passing into the public domain on January 1, 2012.

What might you be able to read or print online, quote as much as you want, or translate, republish or make a play or a movie from? In this centennial year of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic (April 15, 1912), how about Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember? Lord first published A Night to Remember in 1955. If we were still under the copyright laws that were in effect until 1978, A Night to Remember would be entering the public domain on January 1, 2012 (even assuming that Lord or his publisher had renewed the copyright). Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2051. This is because the copyright term for works published between 1950 and 1963 was extended to 95 years from the date of publication, so long as the works were published with a copyright notice and the term renewed (which is generally the case with famous works such as this). All of these works from 1955 won't enter the public domain until 2051.

Why Johnny Can't Read New Public Domain Books . . . .

What other works would be entering the public domain if we had the pre-1978 copyright laws? You might recognize some of the titles below.

’Til the End of Eternity?

1955 was also a great year for science fiction fans — it marked the publication of classics such as Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (the basis of two classic Hollywood movies), and Arthur C. Clarke’s Earthlight. Instead of seeing these enter the public domain in 2012, when you would be free to create and share your new reimaginings of or homages to these works, we will have to wait until 2051—a date that itself may seem like science fiction.

The same is true for historical resources. It has been 150 years since the beginning of the United States Civil War (1861–65); under the pre-1978 copyright law, you could edit and distribute a wealth of materials from 1955 to teach and learn about the war, including Bruce Catton’s Banners at Shenandoah: A Story of Sheridan’s Fighting Calvary, Earl Schenck Miers’ The Web of Victory: Grant at Vicksburg, Fletcher Pratt’s The Civil War and Civil War in Pictures, and Katherine M. Jones’ collection Heroines of Dixie – Confederate Women Tell Their Story of War. But these remain copyrighted until 2051.

Other pieces of history may remain off limits as well. These range from the first issue of Sports Cars Illustrated (renamed Car and Driver) and the first issue of William F. Buckley’s National Review, to the May 9, 1955, episode of I Love Lucy featuring Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball and Elvis Presley’s first television appearance (on Louisiana Hayride, March 5, 1955), to artworks such as Pablo Picasso’s Don Quixote, Rene Magritte’s Masked Apples, and Ansel Adams’ Half Dome Blowing Snow, 1955.

The (Life Plus) 70 Year Itch . . .

Think of the movies from 1955 that would have become available this year. You could have shared clips online with your friends. You could have shown the full films in your local theater. You could have spliced and remixed and made documentaries about them. Instead, here are a few of the movies that we won’t see in the public domain for another 39 years:

  • The Seven Year Itch, directed by Billy Wilder; starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell
  • Lady and the Tramp, Walt Disney Productions’ classic animation
  • Mister Roberts, directed by John Ford; starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly
  • The thriller The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton; starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters
  • Two of James Dean’s three major motion pictures: East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan and co-starring Raymond Massey and Julie Harris; and Rebel Without a Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray and co-starring Natlie Woods, Sal Mineo, and Jim Backus
  • Hollywood versions of major Broadway musicals such as Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls
  • Richard III, Laurence Olivier’s film version of the Shakespeare play, co-starring Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, Nicholas Hannen, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud

Chained Melodies, and Molecules . . .

If you wanted to find guitar tabs or sheet music or record your own version of some of the great music of the 1950s, January 1, 2012, could have been a productive day for you under the old copyright laws — Unchained Melody (Hy Zaret & Alex North), Ain’t That a Shame (Antoine “Fats” Domino and Dave Bartholomew), Blue Suede Shoes (Carl Perkins), Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash), The Great Pretender (Buck Ram), Maybellene (Chuck Berry, Russ Fratto, & Alan Freed), and Tutti Frutti (Richard Penniman (aka Little Richard), Dorothy LaBostrie, & Joe Lubin), would have all become available.

What if you were interested in scientific developments in 1955 (the year that Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates were born)? Many copyrighted scientific journal articles about, for example, the synthesis of DNA- and RNA-like molecules, the effect of placebos, the experimental confirmation of the existence of the antiproton, fibre optics, or the synthesis of mendelevium remain behind paywalls (see here, here, here, here, and here.) (Not all scientific publishers work under this kind of copyright scheme. “Open Access” scientific publications, like those of the Public Library of Science, are under Creative Commons attribution licenses, meaning that they can be copied freely from the day they are published.)

The Public Domain Snatchers . . .

Most of the works highlighted here are famous — that is why we included them. And if that fame meant that the work was still being exploited commercially 28 years after its publication, the authors would probably renew the copyright. (This is true for many of the works featured on this page, though even a surprising percentage of successful works exhaust their commercial potential very quickly.) But we know from the Copyright Office that 85% of authors did not renew their copyrights (for books, the number is even higher — 93% did not renew), since most works exhaust their commercial value very quickly.

Under the law that existed until 1978 . . . Up to 85% of all copyrighted works from 1983 might have been entering the public domain on January 1, 2012.

That means that all these examples from 1955 are only the tip of the iceberg. If the pre-1978 law were still in effect, we could have seen 85% of the works created in 1983 enter the public domain on January 1, 2012. Imagine what that would mean to our archives, our libraries, our schools and our culture. Such works could be digitized, preserved, and made available for education, for research, for future creators. Instead, they will remain under copyright for decades to come, perhaps even into the next century. Think of the cultural harm that does. In addition, because most of these works are orphan works — works that are still presumably under copyright, but commercially unavailable and with no identifiable copyright holder — no one is benefiting from continued protection, while the works remain both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits. (You can read more about the current costs associated with orphan works here and here.) It seems that The Public Domain Snatchers is not the stuff of fiction.


1 Many works published in 1955 are already in the public domain because the copyright holder did not comply with notice, renewal, or other copyright formalities. However, tracking down this information can be difficult (you can read just one of many illustrative examples collected by the Copyright Office here). Therefore, users often have to presume these works are copyrighted or risk a lawsuit (only works published before 1923 are conclusively in the public domain). You can read more about copyright terms from this excellent chart and from the US Copyright Office’s guide.
  It is also difficult to determine whether foreign works are in the public domain. Generally speaking, as a result of international agreements, foreign works published after 1923 are still under copyright in the US as long as one of the following is true: they were published in compliance with US formalities, they were still copyrighted in their home countries as of 1996, or they were then published in the US within 30 days of publication abroad. You can learn more about copyright terms for foreign works from the Copyright Office guide here.



Creative Commons LicenseThe Public Domain Day 2012 web pages by Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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