Unbeknownst to millions of people recovering from their celebrations the night before, New Year's Day is a mini-celebration nested within a more famous holiday. Who among us realized that it was.... “Public Domain Day.” This is the date on which copyrights are supposed to expire on millions of works from a previous generation. It's the date on which the proprietary controls lapse and creative works become born again as public domain artifacts that can be freely used by anyone, for any purpose.
Alas, nothing entered the public domain this year. In fact, nothing will enter the public domain until January 1, 2019, thanks to the twenty-year extension of copyright law that Congress enacted in 1998 at the behest of Disney Co. and other media giants. This may explain why Public Domain Day remains so obscure! Nonetheless, the redoubtable host of Public Domain Day – the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School – annually commemorates this date to educate the public about the theft of works that rightly belong to them.
For this year's “celebration,” we learn how the public domain has been impoverished through excessive copyright terms. Last week the Center provided a wonderful survey of the cultural heritage that remains locked up. “What Could Have Entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2012?” it asks. The answers include the films The Body Snatchers, Rebel Without a Cause, Lady and the Tramp. Then there are all the books from that 1950s that you could copy and share for free: Vladimir Nabokov's Lollita; Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can't Read; J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the last book of his Lord of Rings trilogy; and Edward Steichen’s famous book of photographs, The Family of Man; among many others.