What Do Ayn Rand, Dr. Seuss, and Buddy Holly Have in Common?

Locked out of the public domain.


If I go on strike, Whoville will grind to a halt.

If you were dreaming that this year an upstart publisher would mash up Atlas Shrugged and How the Grinch Stole Christmas into a book both egoists and altruists could love, you're out of luck. There was a time when American copyrights covered creative efforts for no more than 56 years, which would have allowed both of those books to enter the public domain yesterday. But the Copyright Act of 1976 brought that saner system to an end, and since then copyright terms have only grown longer.

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain has posted a list of famous novels, films, and other works that would have come into the public domain this year if the pre-'76 system were still in place; they range from Salvador Dali's Celestial Ride to Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." Under the old law, the site notes, you

would be free to translate [the list's] books into other languages, create Braille or audio versions for visually impaired readers (if you think that publishers wouldn't object to this, you would be wrong), or adapt them for film. You could read them online or buy cheaper print editions, because others were free to republish them….Imagine a digital Library of Alexandria containing all of the world's books from 1957 and earlier, where, thanks to technology, you can search, link, index, annotate, copy and paste. (Google Books has brought us closer to this reality, but for copyrighted books where there is no separate agreement with the copyright holder, it only shows three short snippets, not the whole book.) Instead of seeing these literary works enter the public domain in 2014, we will have to wait until 2053.

We might have to wait even longer. The content industry is gearing up to extend copyright terms yet again.

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  1. “The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”?not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form?by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance.” –Ayn Rand

    Sounds like she would have taken the side of the Whos and castigated the Grinch for thievery.

  2. Anybody read the (DRM-free) Tor laundry novella books? The one about the killer unicorns intrigues me.

    1. that’s obviously clearly redundant twice two times.

    2. I’ve read them all and have the one you’re talking about on Kindle.

  3. All three drew racist cartoons during WWII?

    1. None of them have ever been in my kitchen?

  4. That is easy. They are all dead.

  5. Comment in two parts:

    The utilitarian argument historically made in favor of copyright laws (as well as patent and trademark laws, which require a different discussion) was that it secured rights to their created works to their creators for limited periods. But if one starts with a premise that the property rights in a created thing — that which by the law of identity distinguishes a created thing from any medium that might carry or store it — one immediately asks why a term limited on those property rights is any more reasonable than the property rights in anything else.

    Most arguments about property rights usually start with examples from land usage — so if in 1920 at age twenty I homesteaded a farm and built a farm house should I be evicted from that farm in 1976 at the age of 76? Should my property rights have been limited to 56 years because the “public good” has better use of that land for a new WalMart?

    Why is not term limits on unique artistic propeties created by human minds a form of statist public domain?

    1. I know, immediately, I will be hit with a deluge of arguments about the differences between rivalrous and non-rivalrous properties — that by making a copy of something the creator still has the original. This communistic argument actually destroys the value to its creator/owner of that which is being copied without the creator/owner’s permission because it is only the exclusive property right to a created thing that enables the creator/owner to make a living by limiting its use to those who obtain licenses from its creator/owner.

      To the materialist all property is to be reduced to atoms. The literary composition which is Atlas Shrugged is permitted only for utilitarian reasons to its author for a period of time others decide is amenable to their needs — after that let’s all party with someone else’s property because we want it. The paper and binding can be considered property in the real world; and that which was the author’s contribution to the object — the materially separate creation merely carried by the paper, ink, and binding — is to be regarded as unreal therefore not ownable — even though removing it from the physical carrier makes that carrier virtually worthless.

    2. The nature of intellectual property is different in that intellectual property can be created from nothing – there is a finite amount of, say, land for example – and in that it can’t be literally confiscated from its creator – hence the legal protection is limited to copying and not to “theft” in the typical property sense. IP protection is therefore a bit of a legal compromise.

      Of course most of the commentariat here at Reason believes in quantum property rights, where the product of a mind does not become property until it is observed as a material product.

      1. (I see you covered that in your 2nd post – I composed my reply before it was posted)

  6. Turns out to be three parts:

    The self-contradictions made by people who think they are pro-private-property yet argue for limiting the property rights of others to what they deem convenient for themselves is a scandalous incursion of anti-propertarian utilitarian (at best) and communist (at worst) muddle-headedness into a libertarian intellectual community that is supposed to be the front line of propertarian thinking.

    J. Neil Schulman

    1. 56 years is pushing the lifespan of the content authors.

  7. I believe federal law provides for blind/impaired content to be produced without hindrance. I’ve voluntarily submitted all my works to a non-profit that converted the files to braille and large print, with the right to produce audio. Both publishers (Harper, Simon) agreed, though I informed them after the fact.

  8. How old are the Disney princesses?

  9. I find a “utilitarian” argument about intellectual property to be offensive to begin with. How is it possible that something we create with our minds can have less value than something we create with our hands? Our minds are the very essence of who we are as a person. What we create with that mind should be valued above all else. It should not be trivialized by “utilitarian” arguments. The desire of others to profit off the work of a creative individual should never take precedence over the rights of the individual who created the work to begin with. I am amazed that something so hostile to basic property rights would even appear in Reason. I think the editors need to do a better job picking articles for Reason and let The Nation publish crap like this.

  10. No IP. There’s no need for it, it provably does more harm than good.

  11. I usually agree with J Neil Schulman on the subject of copyright, but not this time. I thing there are valid reasons IP is not the same a physical property and has a limited lifespan. Here is what I commented on facebook. Due to the haphazard nature of open Facebook discussions, my answer is in more than one place and intermixed with a lot of extraneous stuff.

    JNS: …Do you believe ownership of any other private property should have time limits?

    Me: …Logo rights are similar to a debt that dies with the debtor. That is an analogy and not a literal idea. Debts end, that is they are liquidated, with the debtor’s death because they are no one else’s obligation (or they end when they are satisfied). Logo rights are original to the creator and no one else.

    JNS: Property rights are not debts. Property rights are not created by contract.

    Me: There are many forms of property that are not forever. When you create an obligation to pay a debt, it may be transferred. The obligation of the debt becomes a temporary form of property. Another example is stock in a joint stock company. When the company is liquidated it no longer exists. (Debt based forms of property are only similar to IP in that they are pure abstractions in the form of moral claims on either money or physical property.)

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