Now, most people aren’t aware of it, but copyright law is a tragedy, and getting worse. The intention of copyright is to protect the ability of content creators to profit from their works, which is certainly a noble endeavour. The thing is that stuff can’t stay in copyright indefinitely – at some point it has to enter the public domain. Keeping things locked up with copyright indefinitely stifles innovation. Imagine what would happen if Shakespeare’s works were still under copyright – not only would it be illegal to put on a Shakespeare play without permission from (and probably payment to) the copyright holder, thousands upon thousands of derivative works (which includes interpretations like the Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and stories merely based on the originals like Disney’s The Lion King, which is based on Hamlet) would never have been made. In fact, Shakespeare himself derived most of his works from previous stories, so if copyright were eternal, there would likely be no Shakespeare to begin with (or, at least a Shakespeare with much fewer works). It would be a great cultural loss.
So, yes, copyright is important and copyright is a good thing, but copyright cannot last forever. To set limits on copyright, three starting points are commonly used:
- The date of creation
- The date of publication
- The date of the creator’s death (also referred to as post mortem auctoris or p.m.a.)
From these starting points, you add a certain number of years. For example, if the term were “date of publication + 30 years”, then James Cameron’s 1984 classic The Terminator would come into the public domain in this year – though we would have to wait until 2021 for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. If the term were “15 years p.m.a.“, then all of Stanley Kubrick’s (1928–1999) films would come into the public domain this year.
The tragedy is that media corporations – most notoriously the Disney Corporation – have been lobbying hard to extend copyright terms to absurd lengths. For example, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie was released , and its two creators – Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks – died in 1966 and 1971. Its US copyright was originally supposed to end in 1956, but due to Disney lobbying, the copyright law was extended before that, so it would not be public domain until 1984. Then after more lobbying it was extended again until 2003. Then after more lobbying it was extended again until 2023. And the lobbying is probably ongoing. The cartoon is now at least 4 generations old (Disney had at least 13 great grandchildren in 1966), and its longest-lived creator has been dead for 43 years. If that isn’t excessive for a copyright term, I don’t know what would be.
Luckily, things aren’t as bad most places as they are in the US. Most countries in the world follow either the Berne Convention, or the WTO‘s TRIPS Agreement (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), which both require a minimum term of 50 years p.m.a.. That’s a little excessive, but it’s better than the 70 years p.m.a., 95 years after publication and 120 years after creation terms that the US uses. Due to the repeated copyright extensions in the US, no published words are going to have copyright expire until the year 2019 (copyright on unpublished works by authors who died in 1943 will expire this year, though).
Canada complies with Berne and TRIPS, so our copyright terms are as follows:
- 50 years p.m.a. for most works.
- 50 years from publication or 75 years from creation, whichever is shorter for anonymous works.
Which means that, in Canada, anything published by an author who died in or before 1963 – or, for anonymous works, anything published in or before 1963, or published after then but created in or before 1938 – is now in the public domain in Canada.
These are some of the works which are now in the public domain in Canada:
- Anything by French painter and sculptor Georges Braque, one of the founders of Cubism.
- Anything by Italian painter and sculptor Felice Casorati.
- Anything by French novelist, playwright, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, such as:
- Les Enfants terribles
- Le Sang d’un poète
- La Belle et la Bête
- Les Parents terribles
- Anything by novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley, such as:
- Brave New World
- Anything by poet Robert Frost, such as:
- North of Boston
- Mountain Interview
- New Hampshire
- West-Running Brook
- A Further Range
- A Witness Tree
- Anything by novelist and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, such as:
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- The Magician’s Nephew
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- The Horse and His Boy
- Prince Caspian
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- The Silver Chair
- The Last Battle
- The Space Trilogy
- Out of the Silent Planet
- Perelandra / Voyage to Venus
- That Hideous Strength
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- Anything by Japanese novelist Kodou Nomura (野村 胡堂), including all the Zenigata Heiji (銭形 平次) mysteries.
- Anything by poet Sylvia Plath, such as:
- The Colossus and Other Poems
- The Bell Jar
- Anything by French painter Jacques Villon.
Once again, all of these are now in the public domain in Canada, though many of them are not in the public domain in the US or Europe.
So, Canadians, if you haven’t read any of these yet, grab a copy if you can find one and read freely – or watch the films, or view the artwork. And if any of them inspire you to write a re-imagining, or make an adaptation, or even a sequel or alternate story around the events or setting, let your imagination be free!