Recently, Walled Culture mentioned the problem of orphan works. These are creations, typically books, that are still covered by copyright, but unavailable because the original publisher or distributor has gone out of business, or simply isn’t interested in keeping them in circulation. The problem is that without any obvious point of contact, it’s not possible to ask permission to re-publish or re-use it in some way.
It turns out that there is another serious issue, related to that of orphan works. It has been revealed by the New York Public Library, drawing on work carried out as a collaboration between the Internet Archive and the US Copyright Office. According to a report on the Vice Web site:
the New York Public Library (NYPL) has been reviewing the U.S. Copyright Office’s official registration and renewals records for creative works whose copyrights haven’t been renewed, and have thus been overlooked as part of the public domain.
The books in question were published between 1923 and 1964, before changes to U.S. copyright law removed the requirement for rights holders to renew their copyrights. According to Greg Cram, associate general counsel and director of information policy at NYPL, an initial overview of books published in that period shows that around 65 to 75 percent of rights holders opted not to renew their copyrights.
Since most people today will naturally assume that a book published between 1923 and 1964 is still in copyright, it is unlikely anyone has ever tried to re-publish or re-use material from this period. But this new research shows that the majority of these works are, in fact, already in the public domain, and therefore freely available for anyone to use as they wish.
That’s a good demonstration of how the dead hand of copyright stifles fresh creativity from today’s writers, artists, musicians and film-makers. They might have drawn on all these works as a stimulus for their own creativity, but held back because they have been brainwashed by the copyright industry into thinking that everything is in copyright for inordinate lengths of time. As a result, huge numbers of books that are freely available according to the law remain locked up with a kind of phantom copyright that exists only in people’s minds, infected as they are with copyright maximalist propaganda.
The other important lesson to be drawn from this work by the NYPL is that given the choice, the majority of authors didn’t bother renewing their copyrights, presumably because they didn’t feel they needed to. That makes today’s automatic imposition of exaggeratedly-long copyright terms not just unnecessary but also harmful in terms of the potential new works, based on public domain materials, that have been lost as a result of this continuing over-protection.
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