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Public Domain: Why the USA Will Have Nothing to Offer Until 2019

Updated on December 29, 2018

By Rachael O'Halloran

Published September 14, 2014

Where Did Our Public Domain Go?

Every year, most countries release works into the public domain, allowing us to use boundless treasures.  The USA will be releasing absolutely nothing until 2019.
Every year, most countries release works into the public domain, allowing us to use boundless treasures. The USA will be releasing absolutely nothing until 2019. | Source

Definition of A Public Domain Work

A public domain work is any creative work that is not protected (or is no longer protected) by copyright (trademark or patent) and may be freely used by everyone. Some reasons a creative work is no longer protected might be:

  • the term of copyright for the work has expired,
  • the author did not follow the government's guidelines to complete or renew a copyright
  • the work was created by the U.S. Government (governments of some countries - but not all - may have similar laws)

Why We Should Care About Public Domain Works

Many Use Public Domain Works For Inspiration

Every January 1, eager authors, musicians, photographers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative people will look over what has been released into the public domain to see what, if anything, they would like to use to recreate, alter, or expand on in their particular profession.

That's because anything that enters the public domain is a free-for-all. Oh, I don't mean you can put your name on it as the new owner.

What I mean is that anyone can take a public domain work and revamp, rework, recreate or rewrite it - as many times and as many ways as they wish.

There is no user limit, so if you want to use, for example, the words to a song in a new musical arrangement, and 100 other people want to use it too, all of you can do so without fear of copyright infringement.

The result is how our public cache of creative works grows, thereby enriching our culture.

Public domain privileges allow us to use the arts for inspiration while still preserving the works of yesteryear.

Public Domain Property

Perhaps you have seen the term "public domain property."

I don't particularly care for the wording because it implies that something in the public domain is still owned, when in fact, the complete opposite is true.

There are a number of different but more common ways to express when something is public domain.

  • the work enters public domain
  • the work becomes public domain
  • the work is in the public domain
  • the work is public domain

It all means the same thing - generally that the copyright holder no longer has a claim to the work, and now the public can use the work any way they wish - usually as the basis for another work.

Music Copyright

It is better to be safe than sorry. Infringement lawsuits can be very expensive and the music industry has lots of copyright trolls on their payroll to find the infringers. They're sue happy and only because it is profitable to go after infringers.
It is better to be safe than sorry. Infringement lawsuits can be very expensive and the music industry has lots of copyright trolls on their payroll to find the infringers. They're sue happy and only because it is profitable to go after infringers. | Source

Works In The Public Domain Eliminate The Argument For Fair Use.

Do you remember learning about quoting only a certain portion of a work and calling it fair use?

Well, there is no need to worry about that with public domain works. You can quote one page or one chapter, it doesn't matter because it is free for anyone to do with as they wish. There is no risk of copyright infringement or accusations of theft.

With all public domain (PD) works, you can:

  • take a PD finished work and rework it to give it an alternate ending.
  • take a PD novel and make it a play, opera or a film, for example.
  • take a PD song and put new music to it or change the arrangement.
  • take PD music and put words to it.
  • take a PD painting, repaint it or use it as part of another work.
  • draw a sketch using the subjects in a PD painting.
  • write a quote (or text) directly on a PD photograph.
  • add people or objects to PD paintings, PD drawings, or PD photographs.
  • add PD music to your original or reproduced stage production.

The best part many people look forward to about items coming into the public domain is that they will no longer have to pay a license fee in order to be able to use them.

Public Domain Is Not Just About Copyrights

Although I talk mostly about literary works when I write about public domain and expiration of copyrights, the public domain also encompasses other things we use in daily life.

For example, patents which have expired on inventions, medicine, machines, and formulas are also covered under the public domain umbrella. Music, lyrics, paintings, and other works of art are all copyright-able and richly contribute to our culture and ultimately to our public domain.

Although the materials used in a project can't be copyrighted, patented or trademarked, the composition resulting from using the materials can be, and it is to those expiration dates we refer when we say they are in the public domain.

In science, sometimes the steps used to arrive at a conclusion, or a formula which had otherwise been secret, will be of interest so that when patents and copyrights expire, the formulas can be refined and the steps can be streamlined.

This is how we get generic drugs, often years after the name brand came on the market.

The patent was for a set period of time and when it expired, anyone was allowed to create a generic using the listed of ingredients in the formula as a guideline. Some generics will have more buffers or chelation than others; some will have more actual medication than others. Because the United States has "truth in advertising" thus labeling, the milligram ingredient must be listed in the literature and accompanying patient information sheets.

If copyrights, patents and trademarks didn't expire, we would lose the opportunity to refine or recreate our version of generic drugs, a stage play, a different take on a song, or an invention to make an invention more desirable and useful.

Works Without A Copyright Notice

Under the 1909 Act, works published without a copyright notice automatically went into the public domain upon publication. That means the author lost all rights to his work.

Works published without a copyright notice between January 1, 1978 and March 3, 1989, which is the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act, retained their copyright only if efforts to correct the accidental omission of notice was made within five years, such as by placing a notice on unsold copies. 17 U.S.C. § 405.

Those who didn't comply within five years lost their copyright and their work entered the public domain.

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act Of 1998

This new 1998 law changed the playing field, the rules, actually the whole game for every copyright holder, but especially for those certain people who made their living by solely relying on using public domain works as the basis for their art.

This law made copyright terms 20 years longer for all works in the United States. That was financially good news for the dead copyright holder's heirs or licensing agents, but it totally reset the clock for when works would enter the US public domain.

The law was not retroactive for all copyrights from the beginning of time. The law only went back 20 years to January 1, 1978.

Normally a copyright holder has one year to get the copyright renewal filed before their copyright expires. But with the signing of this new law, certain copyright holders nearing expiration were given five years.

Their original 1976 copyright term was 28 years, followed by a second renewal for another 28 years for a total of 56 years.

According 17 U.S. Code § 304 with the new changes in the law, after the initial term of 28 years, the second renewal was for a further term of 67 years, for a total of 95 years from the date the copyright was first registered. 28 plus 67 equals 95.

There are quite a few people who are up in arms because they read it to say 95 years after the death of the author OR life of author plus 95 years.

People are not reading the law correctly. It does not state that copyrights are effective for 95 years after the death of the author.

The new law reads: Copyrights are effective for 95 years from the date the copyright was originally registered.

To bring the actual text of the 1976 Copyright Law into context, wherever it says:

  • 47 - replace it with 67
  • 50 - replace it with 70
  • 75 - replace it with 95
  • 100 - replace it with 120

Once In Public Domain, Always In Public Domain?

That may be true of other countries, but it is not true in the United States as of 2012.

The US government is allowed to remove any work from public domain if they see a upturn in interest, for example, so that they can charge licensing fees and have a say in where and how the work will be used.

But the majority of creative folks don't want to pay licensing fees for works that were already free to use when they are (or were) in the public domain because their copyrights are expired.

It doesn't seem very fair, does it?

Here's the way it all plays out.

1. Because of the new Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, all works will be delayed coming into the public domain of the United States for another 20 years.

2. In 2003, the lawsuit of Eldred v. Ashcroft was fought all the way to the US Supreme Court to challenge the Sonny Bono law, contending that it was a violation of the US Constitution, which said copyrights must be for a limited period of time and that Congress can only create exclusive rights to promote the progress of knowledge and creativity- no for money making purposes.

  • Eldred v. Ashcroft lost their case.
  • The US Supreme Court ruled that the US government (Congress) could retrospectively lengthen all copyright terms to go as far back as 1978.

3. Then, in 2012 the case of Golan v. Holder challenged the Sonny Bono law again contending that it unconstitutionally delayed works which were no longer under copyright from entering the public domain.

  • Golan v. Holder also lost.
  • The Supreme Court totally upset the applecart when they ruled that Congress can remove works from the public domain and not be in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

What does that mean?

It means that the United States government is allowed to dictate which works will enter the public domain - and which works can be pulled from the public domain no matter if they were there for years and years - and they can hold the work out of public domain as long as they wish.

By doing so, licensing (usage) fees must be paid in order to use the work in any way.

This in no way promotes the progress of creativity and knowledge as stated in the US Constitution. It promotes commerce. Actually, it raises a couple of questions.

First, if a work is removed from public domain (i.e. formerly free to use) and then comes under licensing for as long as Congress sees fit (there was no set term discussed), then who is going to want to pay licensing fees for something that countless other folks before them were able to use for free while it was in the public domain?

Secondly, all those projects which were created while a work was in public domain, are they now guilty of copyright infringement? Will they have to pay back licensing fees on each derivative work they created?

  • By stifling and cutting off the public domain like this, old works may fade from our memory and ultimately from our culture.
  • There will be no incentive to update old works, such as new productions of A Christmas Carol, West Side Story, or new musical arrangements of ragtime, jazz, or concertos.

If there is money to be made, the United States will find a way to do it. Taxes are the main source of government income, licensing fees and permits will no doubt be a close second now.

Does This Violate First Amendment Rights?

According to the US Constitution, copyright holders have legally protected rights for the length of their copyright term, “but after the copyright term has expired, no one acquires ownership rights in the once-protected works.” In other words, no one owns public domain works.

I guess now that has to be amended to read: "Except the U. S. Government!"

In the eyes of many citizens, the ruling of this 2012 Supreme Court case tramples all over the Copyright clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution regarding free speech. Public domain works (not just literary, but science and medicine as well as film and music) are important to the progression of our culture and to further medical and scientific research.

The majority of the Justices on the Supreme Court agreed that the public have no rights to works in the public domain. It is the only thing they agreed on.

The minority of the Justices on the Supreme Court - Justice Breyer and Justice Alito - asked this question:

  • “Does the [Constitution] empower Congress to enact a statute that withdraws works from the public domain, brings about higher prices and costs, and in doing so seriously restricts dissemination, particularly to those who need it for scholarly, educational, or cultural purposes – all without providing any additional incentive for the production of new material?”

The answer from the majority of the Justices was: NO.

And that was that.

The Supreme Court ruling in this case reinforced the new law regarding governorship over public domain works. And the US government exercised their rights of governorship almost immediately.

Since Public Domain Day on January 1, 2013, they made the decision to stop releasing works into the public domain for a period of five years, until December 31, 2018. The next expected date of public domain releases is January 1, 2019 -- unless another new law comes along, in which case the expected date of 2019 will be null and void.

Ben Franklin must be rolling over in his grave. As founder of the Free Library System in every city in the United States, he advocated for the public to have free and easy access to works upon the death of a copyright holder.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution says that works are to be copyrighted for a limited time, then released to public domain.

Do you think that Congress is violating the First Amendment of the US Constitution by taking works out of public domain?

See results

Photograph In The Public Domain

 Albert Einstein in 1921, as he rode in a motorcade in New York City with crowds welcoming his first visit to the U.S.
Albert Einstein in 1921, as he rode in a motorcade in New York City with crowds welcoming his first visit to the U.S. | Source

Original Footage of Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein Works In Public Domain

Since most of Albert Einstein's works were published before January 1, 1923, they are in the public domain in the United States. He died in 1955, so his works are also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less.

In countries and areas that have longer copyright terms, Albert Einstein's works may also be in the public domain if they use the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Some of Albert Einstein's works are in the public domain because they were published between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice. No copyright = public domain.

How We Benefit From Public Domain Works

Copyrighted works can't be used for derivative purposes without getting permission of the copyright holder. However, public domain works can be freely used for derivative works without getting permission. Works of art that are public domain can be reproduced artistically, photographed or used as the basis of new, interpretive works to transform it into a new art form..

So how does that benefit the public?

Usually when a work becomes public domain, society will be enriched when they see new adaptations of the work such as film or stage performances, new scores to musical standards, and new presentations of artwork.

In 1987, the novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett became public domain and there are creative works as derivatives.

Shakespeare's plays have been reworked every way you can think of so that some part or the whole of a work has been the basis of film, stage and musical productions since they have been in public domain.

Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting Mona Lisa has been the subject of thousands of derivative works.

And that's how we benefit from public domain works!

Rachael O'Halloran, September 15, 2014

© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran


Submit a Comment
  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States

    creativearts2009, this article is not a question of protected IP in international arenas. This article pertains to public domain in the USA only because of the new SCOTUS ruling which says that any USA author's works having expired all copyright terms (i.e. now in public domain) can be commandeered by the USA to pull that authors works out of public domain whenever they wish.

    If the work is already public domain in foreign countries, by the USA pulling it out, they also must abide - because of their participation in the Berne Convention and their agreement to the rules.

    Your point about when copyright begins is copyright law and not disputed in this article.

    Generally when copyrights expire, works go into public domain in the USA as it does with the works of authors in most countries. So your point about exceptions are true for general copyright information, but no longer pertain to USA public domain "when copyrights expire" because of the SCOTUS ruling.

    Thank you for your views.

  • creativearts2009 profile image


    7 years ago from Australia

    Unless the US is very different than the rest of the world, intellectual property is protected internationally for a period whether the author prints "copyright" on any part of their work or not.

    The exception is when the creator release the rights deliberately, as happens on some free sites where people share works just to see their creativity shared.

    The other exception is where the intellectual property is created as part of an individual's employment, in which case the copyright may belong to the employer who paid for the hours of research and development.

    Unpublished works sitting home in author's notebooks are also protected.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States

    ologsinquito, thank you for your views. I'm sure others feel the same way.

  • ologsinquito profile image


    7 years ago from USA

    The only thing I care about, from a Public Domain point of view, are pictures and images for my articles. This can be frustrating if they're legal to use just about everywhere, except for a certain Caribbean or Central American country. If they're not totally legal, I don't use them. Fortunately, Pixabay can supply most of my needs. Voted up and shared.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    I appreciate your kind words and thank you for reading.

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    7 years ago

    This is very valuable information to know as a writer. I use my own works in general but on occasion will resort to "free" photos or music domain. You always have such interesting topics and I come away much more educated.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    The Sonny Bono law was just the ticket Disney needed to prolong copyright terms. He died before he could see it made law, but I think that made legislators push for it all the more.

    Public domain has to sit in the dugout until 2019 but it was a home run for their team. lol

    Thanks for voting and reading.

  • techygran profile image

    Cynthia Zirkwitz 

    7 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

    Hi Rachel, You did a very nice job of explaining Public Domain, or at least as it once existed, and I appreciate your attempt at trying to explain the crazy-making stuff around the Sonny Bono Extension... I will need to read that again and do some thinking. Voted you up!

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    When ready for a cover, whether you do it yourself or have a professional to do it, it will still be your responsibility to make sure the photos don't infringe on anyone's copyright and/or the proper permissions were solicited.

    Thanks for reading.

  • vkwok profile image

    Victor W. Kwok 

    7 years ago from Hawaii

    Thanks for this interesting article on public domains. This might come in handy one day when I'm thinking about using photos to make a cover for my book.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States

    #Monica Kay 215

    Well, copyright expiration stands at 95 years from date of registration, at the moment, but it is always subject to change at the whim of the US government, whereas other countries do not exercise that power over their copyrights or public domain offerings. Yet. I guess after seeing if there is money to be made, that could change, but I don't believe there is another country in the world who goes out of their way to actually change the Constitution of their country so that they can make money off the work of dead people.

    It used to be that you could almost count on the fact that works that were registered or first published in the United States

    1) before 1923

    2) published without a copyright notice from 1923 through 1977

    3) published without notice, and without re- registration within 5 years from Jan 1, 1978 through March 1, 1989

    4) published with notice but copyright was not renewed from 1923 through 1963

    would all be public domain, but as we have seen, that has now changed with point #3 above.

    It is even worse for sound recordings! Almost nothing enters public domain until 2067, which you can see from this chart we use to determine the dates.

    Scroll down to "Sound Recordings" and you'll see what I mean.

    If we thought we had it bad with literary works, the American public will have to wait 50 years longer than 2019 for sound recordings to enter public domain.

    While you have a valid point about intellectual property benefits to owners and heirs, the public will have to wait that much longer to be able to "legally" adapt or create new works from the standards.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Monica Kay 215 profile image

    Monica Kay 

    7 years ago from Pennsylvania

    On one hand, it would be wonderful if all works enter the public domain some reasonable period after the death of the person who created the intellectual property. Even if it is 50 or 100 years, it would allow heirs of the creator to benefit from the work. On the other hand, we live in a time of copyright vultures and people who are not interested in creating anything new or who cannot create anything will steal any intellectual property. The people who created the intellectual property, the people who made something out of nothing, sometimes receive little benefit and their heirs receive nothing. Think about all of the blues artists who never benefited from the sale of their intellectual property. To me that is an insult to decency.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    I agree.

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 

    7 years ago from Central Florida

    Rachael, I agree with you. Congress is the result of appointments by our current leader. As far as I'm concerned the governmental debacle of the past two terms should never have come to be. There's more behind it than we are privy to. I believe that with all my being. I just hope the damage can be undone with the incumbent. We need to take our country back.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    We are slowly become a dictator country - the signs are there - and the public is missing the signs. Congress is more than half corrupt in my opinion, with all the personal interest bills being put forth, and being passed, with the conflicts of interests blatantly staring all in the face. It is a case of scratching each other's backs.

    With public domain, it is the same. Scratching Disney's back in return for favors and support. Disney isn't the only one, but it is the only one I mention that people will recognize.

    Congress said (although I don't believe this is the reason) that the reason they want to delay works coming in to public domain is so that people will start to think for themselves and come up with new and creative works that don't need to be predicated on existing works.

    In other words, they want people to think for themselves and use their own creative thinking.

    What they fail to realize is that when we build on existing works, that IS creative thinking. We are taking a work and giving it a new spin, perhaps approaching it from an angle that the original author didn't challenge and often we have a different viewpoint, a different work, and a much more enriched culture for it.

    We need to replace some of these people with warped thinking and get some people in Congress who not only respect the arts but actually understand what public domain means to the world at large and to authors and artists individually.

    As far as I'm concerned, Congress is totally out to lunch on this subject and as long as they are all in each other's pockets, we will not see any changes to our laws that will benefit "us" - the people of the United States - who place a high value on our culture and livelihood.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 

    7 years ago from Central Florida

    Rachael, this irritates me to know end. Why have laws and protection rights in place if the government can override them? Why give creatives areas in which to grab material in order to enhance their work if the government can pull them from public domain when they see an increase in interest? The almighty dollar will kick them in the ass once people can't afford the fees or court costs for violating a law they had no idea they were violating. Grrrrr! Rules were made to be broken, not laws!

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    It's definitely a concern and yes, it's always about the money!

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 

    7 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Very important information and sounds a concern. It is always aout money and only noticed when too late.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States

    #Jackie Lynnley,

    What an interesting, yet true analogy!

    I don't think the US government will be very fair about leaving works in the public domain. Their track record at the moment stinks.

    The fact that they stopped releasing works in 2013 and won't be making any more available until 2019 speaks volumes.

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  • Jackie Lynnley profile image

    Jackie Lynnley 

    7 years ago from the beautiful south

    This reminds me of the guy that has been missing for years that found bars of gold under the ocean. All the work, money and time people put into finding these treasures just to have to turn them over to the government and trust them to give them a share... at their convenience I am sure. If ever.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    They say money is the root of all evil, and it plays out to be true so often in life. I think you're right on the money issue, and this case is no different.

    No, they do not have the public's interests at heart in this matter. The First Amendment is supposed to protect our rights and the US government just took most of them away. They can't take away initial copyrights (the first part you get upon registration), but it seems they can fool around with all of the rest, as is evidenced in each change of the copyright laws.

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  • MarleneB profile image

    Marlene Bertrand 

    7 years ago from USA

    Excellent explanation of the copyright laws coming into play. The government sure does interfere a lot. Whatever the reason given, I see money as a motive somewhere down the line. I have lost hope that the government is operating merely for the good of the public.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    I think you're right - The original term way back when was 14 years. A work was protected only for that long, then became public domain. Your copyright was to protect your work from infringement and allow you to earn from it. After 14 years, you could still earn from your work, but now it was a free for all for anyone to build on your work. For example, take your detective character and put him in a science fiction novel.

    I think that took away from the persona you created with your character and with a 14 year copyright, chances are you were still alive to witness anyone's transformation of your work, whether you liked it or not.

    Then in 1909, it was upped to 28 years, with a renewal term of another 28 for a total of 56 years. Then, if no one renewed for another 28 years, which was permissible, the work automatically went into public domain.

    Then in 1976, it was changed again - first term was 28 years and the second term was 47 years for a total of 75 years. As life expectancy got longer, it seems they changed the laws.

    This whole train derailed when "Somebody" got Sonny Bono to sponsor a bill to up the ante to 95 years from date of registration. I thought that when Sonny Bono died, the bill got rushed through pretty quickly. It passed with high numbers of votes.

    And wouldn't you know, writing in full support of the new law, Disney exposed their hand as one of the instigators.

    All because they were trying to protect Mickey Mouse from ever entering the public domain.

    So in another 10 to 15 years, I am sure we can expect another change in the copyright terms.

    The part I don't care for is that, before when going into public domain was automatic, the US now has too much latitude about what goes in, what stays in and what can be taken out of public domain.

    If the copyrights are expired, if the author is dead,if there are no agents or heirs, the work should be public domain. Period.

    Congress should not have that much power. No one should be changing the terms of the US Constitution. Yet we have a President who makes national decisions without consulting Congress. So I guess anything goes when it comes to all things "law."

    I have never been so disappointed in our government and our lawmakers as I have been with the Copyright issues. I guess that shows through my writing, I can't help that.

    We have to hope that if and when they make another change in the law, more level heads will prevail.

    Thank you for reading and for your opinion.

  • Shorebirdie profile image


    7 years ago from San Diego, CA

    I think copyright law has lost its original intent. The original purpose of the law is that no one can deprive you from earning money from your work. I feel that, maybe, that it should extend to one generation (about 40 years) after death so that heirs can benefit. But, nearly a hundred years? What's the point of that?

    The law is so complicated now.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States

    #Patty Inglish, MS

    I agree, the public needs to know what is going on and why.

    Thank you so much for sharing my article!

  • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

    Patty Inglish MS 

    7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

    I'm sharing this also - Outstanding presentation of the facts that we need to know!

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    Indeed it is an outrage. From the outside it looks like Disney and similar companies who have vested interests in copyright terms are the only parties, but anything is possible. I've learned never to assume and never to take things at face value. You could very well be right.

    Thank you for reading and for commenting.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States

    #Hooks and Needles

    That is only part of it. Big entities like Disney and Big Pharma lobbied to Congress big time on this, so they don't lose their rights. No one can tell me that money doesn't change hands when certain Senators and Congressmen pushed these laws through. Too many times we read in the newspapers that a senator sits on a Board of Directors for the very same product or company he is putting before Congress for vote. He benefits there, and I'm sure there's a bonus if he succeeds in getting their cause passed.

    The whole idea is to keep stuff from coming into public domain for as long as possible so copyright holders can reap the benefit of their copyright for as long as they can.

    While they are alive.

    If that copyright holder is dead, there is usually a licensing company in charge - like Getty Images or Universal Music Corp, etc. - who collects the fees. There may or may not be an estate or heirs who get the proceeds. The point is that as copyright terms are made longer, the works are not available for FREE adaptation to be made into new works.

    We're not talking about $30 copyright fees anymore. Licensing fees can be as high as $5000 per use or as low as $100 - it depends on how the work will be used and the agreement between the parties. If there is no agent, the US government gets the fees. If the government took the work out of public domain, especially works prior to 1923 - where there is clearly no agent - they can decide if a work can be adapted when the application is made, how much to charge per use, and it can all turn on their say so. If they think the market is flooded with too many of that work - again I use the example A Christmas Carol - then they can deny the application for use.

    Congress should not be allowed to play God here, and that is exactly what SCOTUS gave them the right to do with their ruling. The First Amendment of the US Constitution regarding free speech and copyright privileges is null and void, where it states that copyrights should be for "limited terms" - it does not say for "extended terms." The new ruling does nothing to "promote progress and creativity" as stated in the Constitution.

    I'm afraid my reply is more than you might have bargained for. :) Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    Public domain should have been left alone instead of constantly extending copyright terms. The crux of the matter is that now the US government has dictatorship authority to say what remains in public domain and what doesn't.

    With copyrights in effect for 95 years now, it is not only literary works, it is music, films, operas, plays, anthropology, medicine, philosophy and photographs that will all have to be paid licensing fees to copyright holders - or to the government if the copyright holder is dead (which they well should be if their work was in public domain) and with Disney lobbying to ask for longer copyright terms, there will be a stifling of the creative arts as well as how we have become so matter-of-fact in using public domain products and works in our daily lives. If some sit-com wanted to use name brand products on the kitchen table in a scene, they have to pay a licensing fee.

    If someone wants to quote an author's work which is still under copyright, a fee applies.

    For all those recent films we are seeing that are takeoff's on movies of the 60's and 70's and 80's, they had to pay licensing fees and also post a blurb at the end of the movie on the credit scrolls. Authors - of books, articles, poetry, films, anything - are being published every day, as you say, but when their copyright ends and they are in the public domain, artists and other authors should be permitted to adapt those works in other ways. Free.

    Congress should never have been given so much power. Copyright terms should end as per the 1976 law - 70 years after the death of author or creator of the work. Extending it to 95 years from the registration of the copyright was ridiculous. Congress said it would allow copyright holders to make more money and retain ownership longer. But all good things must come to an end.

    All works before 1923 are in public domain. This new SCOTUS ruling now allows Congress to take any of those works out of public domain and put them back under licensing. The authors are DEAD, so they aren't getting the fees - the government is as the licensing agent. It also gives them a say in how the work is used and they can charge whatever fees they wish because the schedule of fees is so vague.

    The idea behind this whole mess was to get people to be more creative on their own merit and stop relying on public domain works. Certain factions didn't want to see any more adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Night Before Christmas - of which there are many works with the same title. They didn't want to see any more songs remastered with different music. Public domain also applies to some patents - namely medicine formulas. Congress didn't want to see patented drugs lose their patent so the market was flooded with generic drugs, thus driving down the profits for the name brand drugs.

    The Sonny Bono law is the main reason why literary, photographic, anthropological, philosophical, and musical works will NOT come into public domain from the US until 2019.

    The SCOTUS ruling is the second reason - it gave Congress the right to play God.

    Thanks for reading and for your support :)

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    Two words - Walt Disney

    Yes, there is money going to the US government which was behind some of this - at least that is the official line - but the truth is - it’s Disney politics.

    Since changes were made to the 1976 Copyright law, Walt Disney has had to worry. Disney’s army of lawyers is always lobbying Congress (Reps & Senators) to push for longer copyright terms. The Sonny Bono law was a direct result of Disney’s lobbying.

    Every time a court case comes up, Disney always writes "friend of the court” briefs expounding on the virtues of the copyright system and how it is important that copyright holders never lose their rights. They have themselves in mind when they are writing, especially their "Mickey Mouse."

    Also, every time Mickey Mouse is about to fall into public domain, Disney goes on a big campaign and pushes to extend copyright law. But what most people don’t realize is that Disney is the king of taking content belonging to others, as well as in the public domain and reusing it. For someone who wants to keep stuff out of public domain, they sure didn't mind using it to make their living.

    Many of Disney’s movies are based on public domain works, which they appropriated and made into derivative works (adaptations). Even Mickey Mouse was a derivative - Disney didn’t invent him.

    The first Mickey Mouse film - Steamboat Willie -(1923??) was a takeoff on Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill the year before. Disney wants to keep their own characters out of public domain so other people can’t make adaptations and other uses, but it was okay for Disney to do it and not worry about other people’s rights.

    Another example: A A Milne’s character Winnie The Pooh is licensed by Stephen Slesinger, Inc who was given the rights to Pooh in 1930. In 1961, Disney negotiated a license fee arrangement with Slesinger and in 1983, Disney updated the agreement. But Slesinger claims that Disney has been underpaying royalties on the Pooh character, and that Slesinger is owed about TWO BILLION bucks.

    When they sued Disney for it, Disney rebutted and then filed a lawsuit to have Slesinger’s rights to AA Milne’s “Pooh” voided - taken away from Slesinger! Disney lost that round and it's still in litigation. The owed $2Billion hasn’t been paid as of this writing. For Disney to be such a big supporter of rights for fictional characters, they have no regard for other people’s rights.

    When the 2012 Golan lawsuit came before the Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) - as outlined in this article -both Disney and the US government got their wish. Sort of.

    The fact that SCOTUS ruled that Congress could pick and choose what they wanted to pull out of public domain and what they could delay going into public domain was a totally unforeseen bonus. If Disney falls out of favor with the government, that could be a double edged sword.

    My reply to you was all part of another article which is about 75 percent complete, but I will abandon it now since I don't want to repeat the content and have it flagged.

    Thank you for your question and I hope my reply is satisfactory.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 

    7 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Oh, boy--I smell the Koch Brothers (and their ilk) and the infamous "Citizens United" travesty behind this one!

    This is an outrage, and I cannot think of anything further to say on the matter and still remain within Hub Pages' rules of propriety and proper language. There is simply nothing ladylike to say about this; it deserves recrimination in the foulest gutter language possible!

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States


    Thank you Audrey, I appreciate that.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael O'Halloran 

    7 years ago from United States and and other websites that put "public domain" in their URL to describe their photo content are websites that offer free photos, supposedly in the public domain but they are uploaded by members, so I don't know if they have someone who actually double checks their members. Besides this article, I have been writing about the public domain at large, which talks about copyrights in general on photos, music, plays, films, books, science, etc. because each year the US offers less and less to creative folks to use for inspiration and/or adaptation. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Hooks and Needles profile image

    Hooks and Needles 

    7 years ago

    This was an interesting look at public domain works. I never considered the government wanting the fees. Hmm. You are probably right.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    7 years ago from Olympia, WA

    I think this is a case of something growing much too fast for the guardians to control it. Billions of articles are published what? daily? There is no way for the system, at this point in time, to safeguard that kind of output...hopefully we will see a solution to all of this soon. Thanks as always, Rachael.

  • AudreyHowitt profile image

    Audrey Howitt 

    7 years ago from California

    This is important for all of us to know. Sending it around!

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    So what lies behind this move by the government? Surely they can't be that strapped for cash that they have to gather in a few cents from copyright fees?

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 

    7 years ago from England

    Hi rachael, great explanation of the Public Domain, to be honest I have used only photos from there in the past, recently I either use my own or go to one of the free photo sites, interesting stuff, nell


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