Tomorrow Is National Book Burning Day; Thank Your Friendly Entertainment Industry Lobbyists

January 1st of each year should be National Public Domain Day, when many different creative works enter the public domain, where they can be made useful. In years past, it was a regular occurrence as tons of creative works went into the public domain each year. Often this was by choice on the part of the copyright holder. That’s because copyright used to have a renewal requirement, and the vast majority of copyright holders found little reason to renew their copyright. In 1958-59, only 7% of book copyright holders chose to renew their copyrights, meaning that 93% of books that could have been covered by copyright were allowed to enter the public domain. The small number that did have their copyrights renewed were (not surprisingly) the books that were still huge commercial successes, whose authors and publishers wished to retain their monopoly rights.

But a change happened in 1976 in the US, with the adoption of a new Copyright Act that not only took away the renewal setup, but also made very lengthy copyrights automatic on works. Add to that continued copyright extension at the urging of the entertainment industry lobbyists, and we haven’t had an actual Public Domain Day in ages — and many of us may never see another one in our lifetimes. Considering the incredible value that the public domain has on our culture, this is a huge culture killer.

James Boyle is noting that, assuming he would have renewed his copyright, tomorrow is the day that Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 would have gone into the public domain under the law as it was before 1976. But now it won’t be. Instead of the “book burning” found in that book, we’ve created a different kind of book burning. Thanks to lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, we’ve locked up a massive number of works that should be available for all, and the vast majority of which are available for none.

Unlike Fahrenheit 451, the vast majority of the culture swept into this 20th century black hole, was not commercially available and, in most cases, the authors are unknown. The works are locked up — with no benefit to anyone — and no one has the key that would unlock them. We have cut ourselves off from our own culture, left it to molder — and in the case of nitrate film, literally disintegrate — with no benefit to anyone. The works may not be physically destroyed — although many of them are; disappearing, disintegrating, or simply getting lost in the vastly long period of copyright to which we have relegated them. But for the vast majority of works and the vast majority of citizens who do not have access to one of our great libraries, they are gone as thoroughly as if we had piled up the culture of the 20th century and simply set fire to it; and all this right at the moment when we could have used the Internet vastly to expand the scope of cultural access. Bradbury’s firemen at least set fire to their own culture out of deep ideological commitment, vile though it may have been. We have set fire to our cultural record for no reason; even if we had wanted retrospectively to enrich the tiny number of beneficiaries whose work keeps commercial value beyond 56 years, we could have done so without these effects. The ironies are almost too painful to contemplate.

And, of course, it’s not just Bradbury’s book that is still locked up. Among the many things that would have/should have gone into the public domain tomorrow are Marilyn Monroe’s Playboy cover, JD Salinger’s Nine Stories and Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. But, again, it’s not these works that we should really be mourning. It’s the other works that no one really has access to any more. What a shame.

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