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What Could Have Been In the Public Domain Today, But Isn't 309

An anonymous reader writes with an article from Duke Law on what would have entered the public domain today were it not for the copyright extensions enacted in 1978. From the article: "What could have been entering the public domain in the U.S. on January 1, 2013? Under the law that existed until 1978, works from 1956. The films Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, The Best Things in Life Are Free, Forbidden Planet, The Ten Commandments, and Around the World in 80 Days; the stories 101 Dalmations and Phillip K. Dick's The Minority Report; the songs 'Que Sera, Sera' and 'Heartbreak Hotel', and more. What is entering the public domain this year? Nothing." And Rick Falkvinge shares his predictions for what the copyright monopoly will try this year. As a bit of a music fan, excessive copyright hits home often: the entire discographies of many artists I like have been out of print for at least a decade. Should copyright even be as long as in the pre-1978 law? Is the Berne Convention obsolete and in need of breaking to actually preserve cultural history?
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What Could Have Been In the Public Domain Today, But Isn't

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  • I nominate... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by shentino ( 1139071 ) <> on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @09:17AM (#42440879)

    ...All the stuff that made it to the public domain that was retroactively clawed back after Congress extended copyright and didn't grandfather stuff that had already lapsed.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @09:22AM (#42440897)

    The the UK, publishers started printing new works from living authors without giving them anything and without permission. That is why copyright was created. It was never intended to restrict private citizens, just to prevent commercial exploitation that made authors starved.

    Seems to me we have reached that point again and copyright is only a perverted shadow of what it was intended as. Dropping it completely for non-commercial use and 8 or 12 years for commercial use would have tremendous benefits society as a whole.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @09:29AM (#42440923)

    Then it should be treated like your house.

    Taxes paid on it.

    You must maintain it or have it reposessed.

    If you don't evict squatters after a time they become the new owners (effective abandonment)

    Public gets rights to access.

    Pay tax on your "property" and if you let it fall into ruin, you lose it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @09:52AM (#42441007)

    If you don't get source, the binary is not expressive and cannot be used to advance the state of the art, therefore should not be copyrightable.

    I think that most people would agree that if you had the source code (and it WAS the source code) for the binary sold, then this could be copyrighted together since the binary is merely an operable version of the source code.

    But if you don't have source, you don't get copyrights on either the code (it is a trade secret) or the binary (it isn't copyrightable on its own).

    Remember: just because JK Rowling's books are "Open source" (if you can read the language it is written in), this neither stops JKR making money off the work nor means people can just make a new "Barry Hotter and the Chamber of Commerce" if it would be too much a rip-off.

  • by cffrost ( 885375 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @10:01AM (#42441041) Homepage

    This is the obvious way to make it not matter at all what they lock down for 100s of years. Laurel and Hardy used to be on every Christmas when I was a child. I haven't seen any of their films now for a long long time. Probably they're all sitting in a vault somewhere turning to dust. I guess it is a reminder than in 10^3, 10^4, 10^5, 10^6 ... years eventually it will all be lost.

    Probably, but you can do something: Help keep backups online. []

    I've found myself become the (apparent) sole custodian—i.e., the only persistent, public seeder that I can see—of a number works. When that happens, I feel an obligation to keep my copy available indefinitely. I consider the personal risk in doing so to be less serious than the risk of one of said works becoming permanently unavailable.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @10:17AM (#42441121)

    Well, I guess we're heading into a new "dark age" when it comes to our culture and art. We will of course have all the documents and historians of the future will have no problem discovering what politicians ruled where, what wars were fought and why, but what music we listened to, what movies we saw, will be lost.

    Lost due to incompatibility and formats that nobody can read anymore. How many items from earlier times do you have on VHS and Beta that you digitized so it won't be lost when that VCR dies? No such luck with BluRays. Once there is no player for it anymore, those discs are mighty shiny coasters, but that's pretty much it.

    Creating a big "national archive" isn't really going to solve the issue either, at least if we don't think in decades but centuries. Remember the great library of Alexandria? It did contain pretty much all the knowledge of its time, and all of it was lost in the big fire. All it takes is some civil war or some religious nuts taking over and declaring the whole crap as "heretic" and we being better off if we just destroy it.

    Though blaming just the religious nuts is maybe a bit short sighted, considering pretty much the same happened with a lot of religious iconography in Russia when the Soviets took over, so ... no matter what radical idea takes over, anything in government hands is prone to destruction.

    Historians often have to rely on "private" archives that nobody but the original owner knew about, because such archives are usually much safer from deliberate destruction. But just these archives will not be available to future historians.

  • Re:old game roms (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @10:18AM (#42441129)

    It gets a helluva lot more recent than SNES. There are countless games and applications which for all intents and purposes are abandoned, yet someone is still holding onto those rights. There was a game from the mid 90s that some artist and coder friends got the idea to remake. We spent the better part of a year trying to get a hold of whoever holds the rights to it currently, must have called 100 people myself, but never found who that is. We resorted to provoking the rights holder into surfacing by making a short demo which was the game's prologue. Didn't work out, got shot down by the file host we put it on as well as video websites we posted teasers on, they would not disclose contact information for whoever filed the take downs.

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @10:18AM (#42441133)

    affect the ability of authors to make a living from their work.

    This is the mistake. In 1991 I helped change the contaminated hydraulic oil in an industrial cardboard bailer/press. It was a 100% success. No one thinks it unusual that I was paid up front in one lump sum for my labor at that time of dumping in uncountable bottles of hyd oil rather than 10 cents every time someone uses that cardboard bailer for the remainder of my life plus the next 74 years, or whatever it is.

    If you shrunk the copyright duration down to roughly how long it took the author to write a book, it would hardly result in the downfall of western civ. Lets give them a decade. That sounds realistically fair. For example, I'm going to cough up $15 for Stross's next book, not wait ten years. In fact I buy all his books on the day of release, so a 1 day copyright wouldn't realistically affect his income from me.

    If you eliminated it completely, Stross would either have to live on a pre-order bounty system (no more laundry series until he gets $50K in the bank!) or speeches / book signings, or just apathy. Most likely it would result in the death of the middlemen. Yes I could buy a copy from a cheater of the equivalence of those shady copied DVD sellers, but in the modern internet era its no challenge anymore for anyone in the world to buy a copy of the book directly from Stross. In fact I'd throw in an extra $20 for a personally autographed copy, which under the current middleman system, my extra $20 probably represents his share of about 1K sales.

    Would I buy a copy of HP Lovecrafts work from one of his heirs? Hmm hard question. God knows they don't deserve the money merely for having the luck of being born to the author. On the other hand if they guilt tripped me by maintaining an museum or using the money for a touring exhibition of artifacts or even something like a tuition scholarship for young wannabe authors, well, yeah, they'd be doing enough good work to deserve my cash.

  • by KiloByte ( 825081 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @10:28AM (#42441189)

    This is an interesting idea. While I'd rather see copyright abolished completely, what about this:

    * if you hold copyright on work X, you declare how much it is worth
    * a periodic tax is levied, based on the value you declared
    * at any moment, you may declare a higher value. It can go up but never down (valuable works that are no longer profitable should go public).
    * at any moment, you may abandon the copyright, irrevocably putting the work into public domain
    * anyone may buy the copyright from you for the listed price
    * if the other party intends to buy it to keep (as opposed to freeing it to the public), you may instead raise the value [1]
    * the tax rate increases with time

    [1]. You could have immediately bought it back for the same price, this rule merely resolves such a loop for the benefit of the old holder.

    Such a scheme would ensure any copyright is taxed based on its fair market valuation.

  • Re:Who cares? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by kthreadd ( 1558445 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @11:11AM (#42441447)

    There's another side of the coin, since that means that software protected under GPL would loose its protection, which is obviously bad. So there is a good argument for unlimited copyright.

    In my opinion it's much better if copyright holders voluntarily decides to contribute their work to the common good, rather than doing that by force.

  • Re:Who cares? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tepples ( 727027 ) <tepples@gmail.BOHRcom minus physicist> on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @12:19PM (#42441963) Homepage Journal
    That or they'll just see nothing, as the publishers of proprietary works will have sued the authors of freely licensed works for "plagiarism" (infringement of copyright in nonliteral elements) or software patent infringement.
  • by Paul Fernhout ( 109597 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @12:22PM (#42441987) Homepage []

    I got the idea earlier from someone's slashdot sig around then which I saw in passing -- wish I could figure out who. The sig was something like: "If it is intellectual property, why isn't it taxed?"

    In the variant I proposed, anyone could pay the money to put the copyright into the public domain (not purchase it for themselves).

    Lawrence Lessig proposed something simpler -- a small ($50) tax after fifty years to re-register a copyright. That way at least all the abandoned works would become public domain when the tax was not paid on them (which would be a matter of public record). So, even some simple steps could be a huge step forward.

  • by paaltio ( 978687 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @12:34PM (#42442075) Homepage Journal

    In benefits society because it's an incentive for you to write even more music, which benefits us all.

    The incentive would be for companies to not commission new music, but instead use the free ones from a vastly bigger pool. I'm barely making ends meet as it is, but I do it because I love this work. However if production companies were offered the amazing windfall profit of free contemporary music, I'd have to get another job. That's the cold hard math. The rich composers would just make a little less. But they don't really have to care. I do.

    I have to say I feel really sad reading stuff like this. I feel a big kinship with the geek culture in general, having grown up loving my VIC-20, C-64, Amiga, tinkering with open OSs, and in general just being strongly anti-DRM and pro open source. My music background is strongly influenced by my demoscene work, freely distributed of course, like a lot of my other music. But I feel completely alienated by the pro big business turn the discourse has taken. I've been a strong advocate for file sharing and consumer freedom in general, but I've started to feel I've perhaps made a mistake. Because it seems the only groups caring about my right to tell a company not to put my music in a shitty TV ad that they profit off immensely are the same ones suing people for file sharing.

    It's almost like there's no one who cares about the little guy anymore. It's just big technology interests like Google and Netflix that would love free content and keep all the money to themselves, versus the big media interests that also would love to keep all the money to themselves. I'm clearly in neither camp. I hope my impression is wrong and the silent majority in the open source movement still believes in protecting the little guy even if he happens to only create content for a living.

  • Re:Who cares? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by kthreadd ( 1558445 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @12:59PM (#42442207)
    If the authors of those works didn't wanted to contribute them to the society then we should respect that.
  • Re:Who cares? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RCL ( 891376 ) <rcl DOT rs DOT vvg AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @01:30PM (#42442413) Homepage
    Future generations will look at our software with shock and envy: "they had general purpose computers that anyone was free to program for? Even write a new OS for it? What a Wild West".
  • Re:Who cares? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @02:27PM (#42442925) Homepage Journal

    Easy solution.. Violate the copyright and wait for the lawyers to come-a-knockin..

    I met a guy who is a music distributor, and I asked him what to do about orphan works. That's what he said.

    Apparently that wouldn't be willful violation, and all you'd have to do would be pay royalties. (One of the sticking points is, how much royalties? If I distribute an unpublished collection by T.S. Eliot for 99 cents a copy, and the estate of T.S. Eliot finds out about it, can they decide that each poem is worth $1, and I owe them $10 a copy?)

    That works until you have to get clearance from somebody's legal department.

    Common scenario: Independent film producer makes a documentary, shows it at film festivals and gets great response, looks for a big distributor to handle it and show it on TV, and none of the big corporations will touch it because they can't get copyright clearance for snippits that are incorporated into the documentary.

    Michael Geist has many examples, including the one where the stagehands behind the stage during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera were watching The Simpsons on a portable TV.

  • Re:Who cares? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @02:39PM (#42443053) Homepage Journal

    The Tasini decision turned the New York Times archives into swiss cheese.

    Under that decision, in order to include stories from certain years in the NYT dtabase, they had to get permission from each individual author. The National Writers Union recommended that each author charge the NYT the same amount for reuse as they paid for the original story. That meant that the NYT would have to pay their entire freelance budget from those years, again, to include the stories. The cost would be prohibitive. Some writers let the NYT include their stories free, some decided not to, some didn't get around to it.

    As a result, a friend of mine was writing an article about investments and asked me to find an article in the NYT magazine on that subject which would have saved him a lot of work. After some difficulty, I realized that the article had been deleted from the NYT database. I told my friend to go to the library and look it up on microfilm.

    It was a nice feeling to sit down at a terminal at the library and realize that I could find almost any article I ever read in my life, in their databases. Now, after the Tasini decision, you don't have that any more.

    Is it ever going to be important to you to find a particular article?

  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 @04:28PM (#42444317)
    That was UK, and long, long ago.

    Copyright in the United States was intended to serve the public (it even says so in the Constitution) by encouraging new works by granting creators an exclusive right to their works for a limited time. That limited time was originally 15 (or 17?) years, same as patents.

    I argue that it should be the same now. Certainly no more than 20 years.

Q: How many IBM CPU's does it take to execute a job? A: Four; three to hold it down, and one to rip its head off.