Kurt Busiek on Loss of Public Domain

Public Domain Day 2016

A new year means another article on what famous works of art (and other discoveries) should have entered the public domain but haven’t, due to continuing legal extensions of copyright law. If the law in existence at the time of their creation had been maintained, this year, works from 1959 would now be available for others to reference, reuse, and remix, including North by Northwest, Starship Troopers, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and many, many more. Instead,

Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2055. And no published works will enter our public domain until 2019.

Public Domain Day 2016

Continued extension of this term is a bad idea.

its benefits are minuscule — economists (including five Nobel laureates) have shown that term extension does not spur additional creativity. At the same time, it causes enormous harm, locking away millions of older works that are no longer generating any revenue for the copyright holders. Films are literally disintegrating because preservationists can’t digitize them.

This year, as they point out,

Many of these movies were built on public domain works. Ben-Hur was based on Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880). Sleeping Beauty drew on fairy tales including Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant (1697) (itself based on earlier fairy tales) and the Brothers Grimm’s later version of Perrault’s story (1812). Journey to the Center of the Earth adapted Jules Verne’s 1864 novel of the same name. One work inspires another. That is how the public domain feeds creativity.

Quite the trick, isn’t it? Use free, public domain works to create something new — and then deny others the same privilege for your work.

I was glad to see Kurt Busiek drawing attention to this problem on Twitter earlier this month, in response to someone saying this wasn’t a big deal. I agree with his take on things. Copyright does last too long these days, sponsored by big corporations who don’t want to lose control of Mickey Mouse and Superman.

And that’s important — creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are good stories to be told involving references and characters we all know. Not all of them should be controlled by big companies more interested in profit than art.


  • My only disagreement with Kurt is that I *do* think the original Star Trek should be PD by now.

    But my stance is probably informed by my own background: I’m a computer scientist. In my line of work, it’s pretty rare that something more than 15 years old continues to be profitable, except to copyright and patent trolls.

    We can disagree on the specifics, but I think most reasonable people can agree that 120 years is excessive.

  • A number of copyright scholars agree with you, that the terms should be shortened instead of going the other way. What an interesting world that would be, storywise!

  • Since I feel copyright out to be rolled back to what it was for most of the 20th century (28 years + 1 28-year renewal), I figure Star Trek could stay under copyright.. until about 6 years from now. :-)

    Agree with what Busiek wrote. Copyright’s current ludicrous length doesn’t benefit anyone but Disney, Warner Bros. and similar.

  • And those organizations are determined to continue being the ones driving the agenda of the legislatures of our several nations across the planet on this issue, of course.

  • Hypo-Calvinist

    its benefits are minuscule

    Except that’s only true if you care about creativity, or culture, or human beings. If you declare all of those things to be externalities, and just think about the balance sheets of corporations who happen to have a couple or seven “creative” companies under their umbrellas, then the benefits are maximal.

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