The other day after New Year’s I visited the Public Domain Day 2015 page on Duke [University] Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain site. The page celebrates creative and cultural works—books, films, works of art, photographs, music, reports of scientific research (monographs and journal articles), etc.—whose copyrights expire, and on January 1 enter into the public domain in the United States and other countries. The page notes that over time changes in law, especially in the United States, have tended to increase the period (in years) that copyrights remain in force.
When the first copyright law was written in the United States, copyright lasted 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author wished. Jefferson or Madison could look at the books written by their contemporaries and confidently expect them to be in the public domain within a decade or two. Now? In the United States, as in much of the world, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus another 70 years. You might think, therefore, that works whose authors died in 1944 would be freely available on January 1, 2015. Sadly, no. When Congress changed the law, it applied the term extension retrospectively to existing works, and gave all in-copyright works published between 1923 and 1977 a term of 95 years. The result? None of those works will enter the public domain until 2019, and works from 1958, whose arrival we might otherwise be expecting January 1, 2015, will not enter the public domain until 2054. In addition to lengthening the term, Congress also changed the law so that every creative work is automatically copyrighted, even if the author does nothing. (link original)
As a consequence, Public Domain Day also becomes a less celebratory occasion to highlight significant works that could have entered into the public domain had earlier versions of copyright law remained in effect. Specific reference to works published in 1958 above point to time limits on copyright that were in force in the United States prior to the enactment of the Copyright Act of 1976 (the Act went into effect in 1978), which had an initial fixed term of 28 years that was renewable for another 28 years, for a total of 56 years—the period that would have expired on January 1, 2015.
Copyright was intended to grant and protect for original creators the opportunity to derive due recognition and commercial benefit from their creative or intellectual activity. This opportunity was intended to be limited so that, as it were, the energy of that activity could be released back into the public sphere in a friction-free manner to spur fresh creative and intellectual endeavors for the ongoing benefit of society. The Public Domain Day page highlights several reasons why a robust public domain matters, including: supplying the raw material for new creative activity; assuring preservation of past artifacts for future generations; helping to make education more affordable and interactive; the opening of government; and easing the research process for scholars.
Public Domain Day 2015 for Religious Studies and Theology?
Today (January 19, 2015) is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. King was a pastor and a leader in the 1950s-60s African-American Civil Rights Movement, who worked for racial equality in American society based on his Christian beliefs and principles of nonviolence. Serendipitously, as I scanned the list of titles on the Public Domain Day page, I came across Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. This was Martin Luther King’s first book, published in 1958 by Harper & Brothers, as a memoir of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, which he led. The Public Domain Day page commented on the prospects for this book (and others in the list) entering into the public domain:
[I]magine [this book] being freely available to students and educators around the world. You would be free to translate [it] into other languages, create Braille or audio versions for visually impaired readers…, or adapt [it] for theater or film. You could read [it] online or buy cheaper print editions, because others were free to republish [it]. … That is how the public domain feeds creativity. [But] instead of seeing [this literary work] enter the public domain in 2015, we will have to wait until 2054.
As I thought about the titles published in 1958—including King’s Stride Toward Freedom—listed on this year’s Public Domain Day page, I wondered about titles specifically published in the disciplines of religious studies and theology that might have entered into the public domain on January 1. I was particularly interested in my own discipline of Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) Studies. A cursory catalog search brought up several titles that had been influential in my studies, including:
- Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament. Prentice-Hall.
- Frank Moore Cross. The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies. Doubleday.
- Cyrus Herzl Gordon. The World of the Old Testament. Doubleday.
- Martin Noth. The History of Israel. Harper & Brothers.
- James B. Pritchard. The Ancient Near East. Princeton University Press.
Send in titles from your discipline(s) of study or research
I would be interested in seeing a list of significant titles from your particular discipline(s) in religious studies or theology that would have entered the public domain on January 1 before copyright term limits were extended (e.g., the current “death of the author plus 70 years”). If you live in the United States, it is fairly easy to identify titles published in 1958, following the approach taken by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain. In other places, such as the United Kingdom, I understand previous copyright term limits were the year the author died plus 50 years. In which case, works of authors who died in 1964 would have entered the public domain on January 1. I’d also be interested in hearing your thoughts on the benefits of having scholarly works enter into the public domain.