The Center for the Study of the Public Domain published an interesting post about the copyright law of 1976 (http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/pre1976).
Prior to the 1976 law, copyright lasted for 28 years, and was renewable for another 28. This law made a great deal of sense because the point of copyright is to encourage creators to continue working. The 1976 law extended copyright to 70 years after the author’s death. Now can someone continue to create 70 years after his/her death? Well no, unless we find a way to upload their brain to a computer, and we certainly aren’t there yet.
Some of the books that would be public domain this year if not for this misguided law include the first two volumes of The Lord of the Ring, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Robert Heinlein’s The Star Beast. Movies in the public domain would include On the Waterfront, and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The website lists many more books, movies, and musical compositions.
Furthermore, if the artist does not renew the copyright, the work is not automatically added to the public domain. It’s often extremely difficult or impossible to determine whether the copyright has been renewed, which leaves many creative works orphaned, and unavailable to post online, anthologize, or adopt into a movie or a play, thus leaving many creative works without their audience. Anthology editors are often unsure whether particular stories are in copyright, and if they are, whom to pay royalties to.
Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in copyright. Artists and writers should be paid for their work. I’m opposed to stealing music or books from artists, who for the most part struggle to make a living, but extending copyright 70 years after an artist’s death helps Disney and other large corporations, not artists. I don’t oppose corporations either; they have a right to make a profit, but copyright law has gone too far towards protecting the profits of Disney while ignoring the more pressing issue of encouraging creativity.
Staffwriter Robert Bee is a freelance writer and a librarian in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org