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.