When Copyright Atrophies

slogans from Eric Eldred's campaign to overturn the Copyright Term Extension Act
 Never thought I'd live to see today... the day on which new works enter the United States public domain.

In the mid-1990s, it still seemed to be a routine matter for copyrights to expire on older work, with the occasional news story about which works of 1920, 1921, and 1922 were becoming free for all to access, publish and adapt.

Then in 1998, 20 years were added to all existing copyrights, after copyright holders realized they could simply lobby for increasing the lengths of existing copyrights that were about to lapse (as opposed to the gradual lengthening of how long copyrights will last on new works). Eric Eldred's taking to court the unconstitutionality of such potentially-perpetual retroactive delays (which pretty clearly contravene the Constitution's statement that such terms shall last "for limited times") resulted in the Supreme Court upholding them in 2003.

By the time I joined Distributed Proofreaders the following year, I thought that we'd be confined to merely digging up more and more obscure material from before the 1923 cutoff date. Yet while those 20 years took, well, 20 years to pass, the feared "oh wait, we need 20 more years to, um, go back in time to give century-old creators more incentive" renewal has not. (Ironically, works created in 2004 would have become public domain today under the original copyright length of 14 years.) Americans can finally create like it's 1923!


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