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Are you intimidated by US Copyright Law and the Public Domain?

October 8, 2012

As students face the dilemma of making sure they give appropriate credit to all their sources when writing research papers, other questions remain open to discussion among researchers. One question is, “What is really in the Public Domain?”

Cornell University publishes a splendid chart on their web site that tries to explain how you can figure out if something is, or is not, in the public domain in the US. In spite of that chart, it is still incredibly difficult to figure out if something is in the public domain.

A few years ago, there was research that suggested that the song “Happy Birthday” remains covered by copyright.  That seems strange since the music is from the 1800s and the lyrics were published in books starting in 1912. As the Cornell chart notes, works published prior to 1923 aren’t supposed to be subject to copyright. But.. it’s not always that simple. Researchers are now saying that the early publications were unauthorized and the first authorized publication of the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” occurred in 1935. Therefore, copyright should run from that date. So, if you digitized a book from the 1912 volumes, you would be infringing on copyright.

But that’s not the only crazy case. A letter written by John Adams addressed to Nathan Webb in 1755 is still copyrighted, 300 years after it was written. The letter had been transferred to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1956. At that time, the Society published a microfilm edition of the correspondence, registered it with the Copyright office, and then renewed the copyright in 1984. That means that copyright in the Adams letter will expire on Jan. 1, 2052, almost 300 years after it was written.

There are a number of other crazy examples as well. Take, for example, arguments over whether or not a work is “published” or “unpublished.” Merely broadcasting a TV show wasn’t considered “publishing.” So, TV shows like the first episode of Star Trek don’t have their copyright clock start until nearly a dozen years after it was first broadcast, because that’s the first time it was “offered for sale” rather than just broadcast.

As one blogger posted, “Does this mean that there is no effective copyright on a TV show UNLESS it’s offered for sale to the public? IE: If a show airs on TV tonight but is not offered for sale, can it be copied because the copyright clock hasn’t started yet?”

In 1976, we had the equivalent of a “Yellow Pages” of copyrighted works. That no longer exists, due to a lack of funds to keep the list updated. As another blogger noted, “There was almost no file sharing happening in 1976! No hordes of internet pirates wantonly stealing the precious intellectual property! There was no Pirate Mike back then, either. No Pirate Party! No Pirate Bay! Quick, call up our lobbyists, we can solve piracy by changing the law back to what we had before 1976!”

Reading through all of the examples, do you have any solutions to these enigmas?

Anyone willing to take on copyright law as it stands today, especially with regards to the public domain?

Adapted from:

Masnick, Mike. “What Public Domain? Why A Letter Written In 1755 Is Still Covered By US Copyright Law”. Tech Dirty. Tech Dirt Blog, 19, September, 2012. Web. 08, October, 2012.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 12, 2012 5:15 am

    The copyright should not be made that much complicated to understand as these are some basic rules which should be followed with respect to the originality of matter then why is there any difficulty in accepting them.

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