Have you ever wondered what it would be like to write and publish your own Superman comic book? What if you could produce and sell your own illustrated sequels to Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” or Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy? Does making your own Tarzan or Conan podcasts and charging 99 cents a piece for them hold any appeal? “Oh definitely,” you might say “but how? The owners of all that work might let me do something for free, but I could never make a profit by it, could I?”
Sadly, the answer to that question is no, but the idea really isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. To understand why, it is necessary to review a little history of copyright law in the United States. The notion of patents and copyrights is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, giving Congress the power to “promote the progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This power was originally embodied by the Copyright Act of 1790, which allowed authors to print, reprint or publish their work for a term of 14 years, with the option to renew for another 14 years if the authors were still alive. This act was modified in 1831 and 1909 to extend the term to 28 years with a 28-year renewal, and include all works of authorship to give composers the better ability to profit from sheet music.
As this was the state of the law in the United States until 1976, this opens up some intriguing lines of thought. All of the creative work produced or published in the United States before 1950 would now be in the public domain. Some of the work produced since then would also fall into the public domain because copyright renewal was not automatic. Think of what that means. All the Golden Age comic book characters like Superman and Batman would no longer belong to just DC Comics. Likewise, ‘The Hobbit’ (but not the Lord of the Rings) would be as available and quotable as Shakespeare. Though none of the music of the rock ‘n’ roll era would yet be free, a lot of the blues, jazz, and country that inspired those artists would be. Even Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny would really belong to all of us.
Of course, this cannot happen. Copyright law in the United States was amended in 1976 to conform with international copyright law. Terms were extended to the life of the author plus 50 years for individually created works, and works of corporate authorship were protected for 75 years. These terms were further extended in 1998 by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act to 70 years and 95 years to match statutes of the European Union.
This is well and good, but comes with a price. When does our cultural heritage cease to be the property of government-sanctioned monopolies and belong to everyone? The current statute says that ‘Star Wars Episode IV’ will belong to Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and the heirs of George Lucas until the year 2072. Given the rate at which intellectual and creative work can be made available to nearly everyone in the world, is that perhaps excessive? What of the vaults of more obscure, material that appear on sites like YouTube.com? The live concert footage of Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin or old episodes of the Harlem Globetrotters animated TV show (a Bill Gates favorite, evidently) are cultural artifacts that no media conglomerate is ever going to see fit to issue on DVD. Shouldn’t those works be available to everyone who is interested in them instead of merely living on in the minds of the few people who bother to remember them?
These are tough questions to answer. Still, it is fun to dream. Would you let Superman marry Lana Lang instead of Lois Lane? Would there be additional adventures of Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf The Grey after finding The Ring but before Frodo Baggins appears on the scene? Would you try to revive the lost art of the exciting radio serial with your thrilling adaptation of the adventures of Flash Gordon in Podcast? The creators of those works would have understood your right to do so when they were alive and working.