I got curious about the Public Domain recently and was surprised by what I found. On the first day of each year, Public Domain Day celebrates the moment when copyrights expire, enter the Public Domain, and join their brethren, such as the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, and the books of Dickens. Once in the Public Domain, a work can be freely copied, remixed, translated into other languages, and adapted into stage plays, movies, or other media, free from restrictions. Because they are free to use, they can live on in perpetuity.
Of course, rights are based on jurisdiction, so not all countries will benefit equally every year. In 2015, our neighbors up north in Canada celebrated the entrance of the writings of Rachel Carlson, Ian Fleming, and Flannery O’Connor to the Public Domain (along with hundreds of others). I’d be curious how a James Bond movie made in Canada would fare here in the U.S., as they now have the right to make such a movie. Speaking of the U.S., how many works do you think entered our Public Domain this year?
Not a single published work will enter the Public Domain this year. Next year? Nope! In fact, no published work will enter the Public Domain until 2019. This is assuming that Congress does not, once again, extend the Copyright term even longer than it is now (which is currently the Author’s lifetime plus 70 years) – which is how we ended up in this situation in the first place.
I’ve harped on this sort of thing before, so I won’t belabor the point. I was just surprised that the Public Domain was so dead in the United States. Even works that gained notoriety for being accidentally let into the public domain, like It’s a Wonderful Life, are being clamped down on. Ironically, It’s a Wonderful Life only became famous once it was in the Public Domain and thus free to televise (frequent airings led to popularity). In the 1990s, the original copyright holder seized on some obscure court precedents and reasserted their rights based on the original musical score and the short story on which the film was based. The details of this are unclear, but the result is clear as crystal: it’s not aired on TV very often anymore because NBC says they have exclusive rights (and they only air it a couple times a year) and derivative works, like a planned sequel, are continually blocked.
I don’t know of a solution, but I did want to reflect on what the year could have brought us. There goes my plans for a Vertigo remake!