Free at Last

United States copyright law was changed repeatedly in the last century to grant copyright extensions to entire classes of works of literature and entertainment. This meant that such work could not be referenced at length in works of scholarship without incurring substantial permission fees; it also meant that lots of books were much more expensive than they would have been otherwise.

As of yesterday, the copyright on many thousands of works had expired. This is very good news.

“The drought is over,” proclaims Duke Law School’s Center for the Public Domain, highlighting some of the works which are now available royalty-free, by authors from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Kahlil Gibran, PG Wodehouse to DH Lawrence, Edith Wharton to ee cummings. It’s not only books: copyright in the US is also expiring on a host of films, paintings and music.

“The public domain has been frozen in time for 20 years, and we’re reaching the 20-year thaw,” the center’s director Jennifer Jenkins told the Smithsonian. The magazine predicted that the release’s impact on culture and creativity could be huge, because “we have never seen such a mass entry into the public domain in the digital age”. Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, told the Smithsonian: “We have shortchanged a generation. The 20th century is largely missing from the internet.”

The expiration means anyone can publish an edition, to take one example, of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. That novel, alongside thousands of other books, will become part of the repository of texts on sites such as the Internet Archive and Google Books. Writers will be able to use it as inspiration, creating new works or sequels based on it. Students will be able to quote freely from it; theatre producers will be able to adapt it.

As an editor, I have been very concerned about the viability of book and magazine publishing. And I know that several publishers do benefit from having a robust backlist. That said, overall these restrictions have stymied the publication of creative and academic work for many decades.

 

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