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It’s Public Domain Day and once again Americans get almost nothing

By Christopher Groskopf
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Every year on Jan. 1, thousands of books, movies and songs move into the public domain, free for anyone to use for any reason whatsoever. It’s Public Domain Day!

This year, material entering the public domain could include works by important literary figures such as T. S. Eliot and Malcolm X. But only if you’re using them in Canada or China.

Each country protects an author’s copyrighted works for the length of their life plus some number of years after they die. However, the exact number of years varies, and as a result, works enter the public domain of different countries in different years. To map those different copyright terms around the world, Quartz used data gathered by Wikipedia contributors, supplemented with our own research:

Copyrights that persist for 50 years past the death of the author are the most common, worldwide. This is the law in most of Africa and Asia, as well as Canada, where all works by authors who died in 1965 enter the public domain today. In those countries, according to a list compiled by Public Domain Review, 2016’s new public domain luminaries include:

  • Winston Churchill
  • T. S. Eliot
  • Lorraine Hansberry
  • Malcolm X

Thousands of lesser-known authors also join the public domain alongside them.

However, many countries—including the United States and all of Europe except Belarus—have extended their copyright terms to 70 years. As a result, they won’t see T. S. Eliot enter the public domain today—or any day—until Jan. 1st, 2036. For these countries it should be works by authors who died in 1945 that enter the public domain today. These include:

  • Béla Bartók
  • Anne Frank (though the legal status of her diary is in dispute)
  • “Blind” Willie Johnson
  • Paul Valéry

But if you live in the United States, the situation is actually much more complicated.

The US changed its copyright term to 70 years in 1978, but it also retroactively extended copyrights twice—first as part of the 1978 law and then again in 1998. As a result of these extensions, no published works will actually enter the public domain until 2019. (Unpublished works do enter the public domain, but this is a much smaller and decidedly less illustrious group.)

If Congress had kept its pre-1978 copyright law, an impressive range of mid-century American books and films would now be free for all Americans to use and reproduce. The Center for the Study of the Public Domain (CSPD) at Duke University published a list of such works, calling attention to written works such as:

  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • Goldfinger by Ian Fleming
  • Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
  • Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

They also list many classic films of the 20th century that could have entered the public domain this year:

  • Ben-Hur
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth
  • North by Northwest
  • Sleeping Beauty

There has been extensive research (pdf) showing that copyright extensions diminish the value of the public domain in ways that are not offset by the additional compensation accrued to copyright holders. But the greatest damage is not necessarily economic; lesser-known and orphaned works are vulnerable to being lost entirely. Jennifer Jenkins, director of the CSPD, tells Quartz: “Films are literally rotting in their cans. They are turning into dust.”

Despite these criticisms, the US has repeatedly pursued efforts to “harmonize” the rest of the world around 70 year copyright terms.

The latest such effort is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, if ratified, would require its 12 signatories to adopt a minimum copyright term of 70 years after death. If that happens, works by André Breton and Evelyn Waugh would not enter the public domain in Canada next year, as they are currently expected. It will ensure a smaller, sadder Public Domain Day for them—but at least Americans would have their northern neighbors to commiserate with.

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