What Could Have Entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2011?

Under the law that existed until 1978 . . . Works from 1954

Images of Lord of the Flies, The Doors of Perception, Rear Window, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Seven Samurai, Waiting for Godot, Sports Illustrated, Horton Hears a Who!

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(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

Waiting for . . . Waiting for Godot and Lord of the Flies, The Doors of Perception, Rear Window, Seven Samurai, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the first issues of Sports Illustrated, Horton Hears a Who! . . . . [1]

Current US law extends copyright protections for 70 years from the date of the author’s death. (Corporate “works-for-hire” are copyrighted for 95 years.) 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 1954 would be passing into the public domain on January 1, 2011.

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? How about William Golding's Lord of the Flies? Golding first published Lord of the Flies in 1954. If we were still under the copyright laws that were in effect until 1978, Lord of the Flies would be entering the public domain on January 1, 2011 (even assuming that Golding or his publisher had renewed the copyright). Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2050. 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 1954 will enter the public domain in 2050.

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.

Under the pre-1978 copyright law, you could now teach history and politics using most of Toynbee's A Study of History (vols. 7–10 were first published in 1954) or Henry Kissinger's A World Restored, or stage a modern adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's A Time to Love and A Time to Die for community theater.

The 1950s were also the peak of popular science fiction writing. 1954 saw the publication of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (filmed three times in the last half century by Hollywood), Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow!, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range, Robert Heinlein’s The Star Beast, and the Hugo Award-winning They’d Rather Be Right by Frank Riley and Mark Clifton. Instead of seeing these enter the public domain in 2011, we will have to wait until 2050 – a date that, itself, seems the stuff of science fiction.

Pieces of history, too, remain locked up. The first issue of Sports Illustrated – which featured on its cover the then Milwaukee Braves’ Eddie Matthews at bat with the then New York Giants catcher Wes Westrum – would be entering the public domain on January 1, 2011. (Time Inc., owner of Sports Illustrated, retains the copyright through 2050.)

Think of the movies from 1954 that would have become available this year. You could have showed clips from them. You could have showed all of them. You could have spliced and remixed and made documentaries about them. (You could have been a contender!) Instead, here are a few of the movies that we won’t see in the public domain for another 39 years:

  • On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan; starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb
  • Director Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr, and Thelma Ritter
  • The original Japanese-language release of Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurasawa; starring Takashi Shimura and Toshirō Mifune
  • Dial M for Murder, directed by Hitchcock; starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings
  • Walt Disney's 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason
  • The cult horror classic, Creature from the Black Lagoon
  • The enduring holiday chestnut, White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Allen, featuring songs by Irving Berlin
  • The Barefoot Contessa, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien
  • Brigadoon, with Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, and Cyd Charisse; from the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical

If you wanted to find guitar tabs or sheet music or record your own version of some of the great music of the early 1950s, January 1, 2011, would have been a happy day for you under the old copyright laws. I Got a Woman (Ray Charles and Renald Richard), Mambo Italiano (Bob Merrill), Mister Sandman (Pat Ballard), Misty (Erroll Garner), Only You (and You Alone) (Buck Ram), Shake, Rattle and Roll (Jesse Stone, under his songwriting name, Charles E. Calhoun) – they would have all become available.

What if you were interested in scientific research from 1954? Many copyrighted scientific journal articles about, for example, quantum theory remain behind paywalls (see 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.)

Most of these works are famous – that is why we included them here. And the authors of famous and commercially successful works would probably renew the copyright for a second term of 28 years. 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 1982 would be entering the public domain on January 1, 2011.

That means that all these examples from 1954 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 1982 enter the public domain on January 1, 2011. Imagine what that would mean to our archives, our libraries, our schools and our culture. Instead, these works will remain under copyright for decades to come, perhaps even into the next century. And for most of them – orphan works – that means they will be both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits, without any benefit going to a copyright holder. Think of the cultural harm that does. How ironic that Samuel Beckett’s English-language version of Waiting for Godot, the existentialist play in which the characters Vladimir and Estragon wait interminably for a Godot who never appears, was published in 1954 and would once have been entering the public domain on January 1, 2011. As Vladimir says in the play: “But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—” 56 years later, we are still waiting.


1 Many works published in 1954 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.


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