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Happy New Year, all. My spouse and I spent part of yesterday evening at our local revival house, watching a classic New Year's Eve double-feature of The Thin Man and After the Thin Man. Then we adjourned to a favorite bar for midnight; after all, that's what Nick and Nora would do.
By coincidence, midnight last night was the moment when After the Thin Man was once set to enter the public domain. But of course, it didn't. For the 34rd year in a row, nothing new entered the public domain, which has been basically frozen in place since 1978. Under the original copyright laws in force when it was made, After The Thin Man should have entered public domain 19 New Year's Eves ago, during the first second of 1993. (Obviously, the earlier Thin Man movie would have become public domain even earlier.) A major copyright extension act in 1976 pushed that particular date back until the wee hours of this morning. And then, of course, another copyright extension law in 1998 (the Millennium Copyright Act or Sonny Bono Act), pushed that back for another twenty years. So After the Thin Man will cease to be private property on New Year's Day, 2032, 96 years after its theatrical release, under the current schedule. Look for that date to be pushed back again in five or six years, when Congress comes under pressure from the big media companies to extend the copyright term another 20 or 25 years.
So there's nothing new under the public domain's tree this year, but I'd like to list some of the movies, books, and recordings that would have become public today, under earlier versions of the law:
If not for the Millennium Copyright Act:
Porky Pig would enter the public domain today, as would Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times would enter in the public domain today, as would Mae West's Go West, Young Man, Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and a host of others: My Man Godfrey, Tarzan Escapes, Ballots or Bullets, Swing Time, Intermezzo, Charlie Chan at the Opera, Reefer Madness, Hitchcock's original Secret Agent and the original Anything Goes.
Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was set to exit copyright today, as was Double Indemnity, Dos Passos's The Big Money, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes!, Ayn Rand's We, the Living and of course Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.
The songs "Good Night, Irene" and "Pennies from Heaven" should have entered public domain today, as should a bunch of other classics from the American songbook: "A Fine Romance," "The Way You Look Tonight," "It's De-Lovely," "Easy to Love" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." (The last three by Cole Porter, who was on an especially hot streak.) The public domain should also include classical music by Bartok, Barber, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, whose ballet Romeo and Juliet appeared in the same year as his Peter and the Wolf.
According to the Sony Bono Act, all of these works are too new to enter the public domain until 2032. People need a chance to make a little money off them before that happens.
If not for the Copyright Act of 1976:
Under the copyright laws in force when they were made, Rebel Without a Cause, Marty, The Seven-Year Itch, The Blackboard Jungle, Lady and the Tramp, and To Catch a Thief would all have entered public domain today. So would Davy Crockett, Guys and Dolls (with Brando and Sinatra), Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Deadly, The Man with the Golden Arm, East of Eden, Godzilla Raids Again and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.
Also entering public domain today would be The Lord of the Rings (whose final volume would be leaving copyright), Moonraker, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Waiting for Godot, Notes of a Native Son, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, William Golding's The Inheritors and Nabokov's Lolita. (The last book was not published in an English-speaking country until three years after the others on this list, but was published in France, in English, in 1955.)
The musical public domain would be enriched today by "Rock Around the Clock," "Folsom Prison Blue," "Unchained Melody," "Blue Suede Shoes,""Charlie Brown," "Tutti Frutti" and "Maybelline." If early rock and roll isn't your speed, they'd be joined by a batch of Sinatra classics: "Love and Marriage," "The Tender Trap," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," and an old Doctor Cleveland favorite, "Learning the Blues."
However, federal law has subsequently determined that none of these works count as oldies yet. Under the current schedule, they are all slated to enter the public domain in 2051. And of course, it might take much, much longer. All that's certain is that next New Year's Day there will again be nothing else in the public domain, the same way it's been since January 1, 1979. And as we approach January 1, 2019, there will be a major campaign to keep anything from entering public domain ever again.