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.
• The first two volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of Rings trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers
• Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (his own translation/adaptation of the original version in French, En attendant Godot, published in 1952)
• Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim
• Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception
• Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!
• Pauline Réage’s Histoire d’O
• Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, subtitled “The influence of comic books on today’s youth”
• Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
• Mac Hyman’s No Time for Sergeants
• Alan Le May’s The Searchers
• C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, the fifth volume of The Chronicles of Narnia
• Alice B. Toklas’ The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook
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 Toshir? 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.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, we exist in a continually growing cultural vacuum which benefits undead corporations and renders our own view of the world around us into a relentless advertisement for more of the same.
Copyright was created to protect the public domain – to ensure works would eventually fall into the commons – so we would all benefit. The law, and our own government representatives, have been corrupted – the laws inverted and twisted – and this effort continues – and will continue – until we either give up or stand up.
You and yours are poorer now.
Happy New Year.
Go make something new.