What Could Have Entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2016? Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain helpfully answers this question in the 2016 version of its annual report on the subject. January 1st of each year, known by normal human beings as New Year’s Day, is also known by copyright nerds as Public Domain Day, the day that creative works with expiring copyrights enter the public domain and can be freely used without permission. In an alternate universe where U.S. copyright protection had not been extended by Congress from its original 28-year term to the current term of the author’s life plus 70 years, many creative works of enormous cultural and historical significance would be entering the public domain today.
Books and plays such as Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch, Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style would be freely available to students and teachers. Films and television shows like Ben-Hur, North by Northwest, Sleeping Beauty, Some Like It Hot, Suddenly Last Summer, Anatomy of a Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank, Rio Bravo, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, and Rocky and Bullwinkle could be shown, copied, archived, and edited into new works. Musical works such as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Leiber & Stoller’s Love Potion No. 9, and Ray Charles’s What’d I Say could be performed, transcribed, adapted, reimagined, and freely enjoyed without a license. In the real world of U.S. copyright law, however, neither these nor any other copyrighted works will be entering the public domain this year, or next year, or the year after that. Under current law, no copyrighted works are slated to enter the public domain until 2019, and none of the titles named above will enter the public domain in the U.S. until 2055. Regardless of one’s views on the wisdom or propriety of our seemingly ever-lengthening copyright terms, the advocates and curators of our creative commons seem to have little to celebrate this Public Domain Day.