Peter Robins

In and out of copyright

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New Year's Eve, among its other distinctions, is the date when copyright terms tend to expire: with the beginning of each new year, at least in this country, the public domain gets a little larger. In 2012, this has had a couple of effects in the world of digital bookchat.

One was a flurry of insulting tweets directed at Stephen Joyce, who has policed quotation of his grandfather James's work with more vigour than many scholars would like. Since the elder Joyce died in 1941, and copyright expires in most places 70 years after the death of the author, the younger Joyce has now lost his grip on Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, although graduate students tempted to hit the retweet button should remember that the situation is much more complicated with works not published during the creator's lifetime.

The other effect has been the circulation of an elegiac list published by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Each New Year's Day, the Center tells the world what would have come into the public domain were it not for extensions to the copyright term, and the list this year is exciting: the books on it include Lolita, The Magician's Nephew and the final volume of The Lord of the Rings, and there are films including Night of the Hunter, Rebel Without a Cause and The Seven Year Itch. For British readers, however, it's a bit misleading; it tells you what would have become public domain under America's old 56-year copyright term. We never had that. For us, it's better considered a list of which works would have become reliably, if illegally, available on American websites.

Until 1995, copyright in Britain was for life plus 50 years. We then went to life plus 70 to bring us into line with the Germans. So for the UK's lost public domain works, you need to consult Fantastic Fiction's list of authors who died in 1961. The most interesting of these, at least to me, turn out to be American: Hammett, Hemingway, James Thurber. It would also have been a good year for fans of popular fiction, with the liberation of Frank Richards, Nevil Shute and Angela Thirkell.

As for who's actually just entered the public domain -- well, besides Joyce, the big name is probably Virginia Woolf; others include Hugh Walpole, Tagore, and P.C. Wren, the author of Beau Geste. (The Public Domain Day site is a good place to start finding out about this year's authors.) I find it hard to feel too thrilled, though. Because the dead writers of 1941 spent a four-year interval out of copyright before the great tightening of 1995, cheap editions of their more famous works are quite easy to find in any case. The game will probably start to feel more important again from 2016 (at least for fans of Theodore Drieser), with 2021 bringing a particularly tempting haul.

(Concluding warning: I am not a lawyer, and copyright is complicated. Before planning a musical based on the works of Hugh Walpole, or doing anything else that relies on work by authors named in this blogpost being in the public domain, you should consult a competent authority.)