Breaking the 95 Year Prison

This January 1st 2019, something really exciting just happened. For the first time since 1998, creative works in the US have once again entered the public domain. What these means is that a handful of old works can now be freely distributed, remixed and referenced without repurcussions. That means no copyright strikes, no infringement lawsuits, and no accusations of piracy.

This is meant to be yearly tradition. By law, no copyright is meant to last forever. When a work's copyright term is officially over, that work enters the public domain on New Year's Day. Most of us consider January 1st to be a day of renewal for ourselves, but the same can also be said of these creative works. By entering the public domain, these works can be given a second life, a different perspective. If you want an example of this in action, look no further than the countless fairy tales that have been turned into animated Disney movies.

Unfortunately, this copyright term has been extended multiple times by vested interests. Copyright terms used to only last a few decades; now it can last over a century (especially if it's a book). During the last copyright term extension in 1998, works that should have entered the public domain were given a blanket 20 year extension. In addition, every work published before 1978 was automatically given a 95 year copyright term. Even though F. Scott Fitzgerald passed away more than 70 years ago, meaning all of his literary works should be in the public domain by now, some of his famous works like The Great Gatsby still remain in copyright.

As a result of these copyright laws and numerous term extensions, it has taken an inordinately long time for old works to finally return to the people where it belongs. Take for instance today, when works from 1923 have finally entered the public domain. For context, the year 1923 was:

  1. Just five years after World War 1
  2. Before the Great Depression
  3. Before sound and Technicolor film
  4. Before the United Nations
  5. Still in the midst of Jim Crow
  6. When Jazz was relatively recent and was still the devil's music
  7. Before the breakup of the British Empire

If it sounds like so long ago, that's because it is. The world moves so fast that it's silly that it's only now that the public has free access to such old works. It should be obvious by now that 95 years is far too long to keep important works in copyright purgatory, especially since many of them are no longer monetizable by publishers anyway. You may think that your work is worthy of a 95+ year monopoly, but not every book or movie gets to be as enduring and as profitable as The Lord of the Rings.

It's probably too late to dial back this copyright term now. A long-duration copyright term is pure upside for the billion-dollar media companies of today. I hope, though, that they're sane enough to realize that the buck should stop here. Any further extensions to copyright at this point would be pure lunacy, and would be a big disservice to those who are trying to preserve our human heritage, even those no longer worth much money to their respective publishers.

Yes, copyright does have value. Creators should be able to monetize their works for a reasonable period of time. But works should eventually return to the people. They should be given new lives that the original creators couldn't have dreamed of. As humanity continues to grow, so should its collection of public knowledge, not perpetually kept in the hands of a few individuals.

While there's still plenty to be frustrated about regarding the state of copyright, I don't want to distract too much from today's momentous occasion. Today is an amazing day for the public domain, and should wiser heads continue to prevail, this day every year will have something else to celebrate in addition to our yearly resolutions.

Is one of your New Year's Resolutions to read more books? Try out these books that have just entered the public domain[1]:

  1. The Prophet -- Kahlil Gibran
  2. The Murder on the Links -- Agatha Christie
  3. Men Like Gods -- H.G. Wells
  4. The Lighthouse at the End of the World -- Jules Verne
  5. The Able McLaughlins -- Margaret Wilson

You have the right to read, distribute and remix these books without consequence. If you don't find this book freely available yet, you can bet that they will show up in Project Gutenberg fairly soon.

Want more high-quality ebooks of Public Domain works? Check out Standard Ebooks!

  1. These books have entered the public domain under the current US copyright system, where works published before 1978 have a copyright term that lasts 95 years. Some countries have terms shorter than this, however digital distribution remains tricky, so most online resources effectively have to wait on US copyright expiration. If you live in a country that has even longer copyright terms, then you may have to wait longer for such works to enter the Public Domain in your country. ↩︎

Show Comments