Public Domain Day and what could have been

Every January until Disney starts writing checks to Senators, a new crop of cultural treasures enters the public domain.

The original Winnie-the-Pooh short stories and illustrations are public domain. You can write, animate, film etc. a new Pooh story or reinterpretation and Disney can’t stop you. Tigger is copyrighted a few more years, and you have to be careful to not incorporate later, still-copyrighted elements of the characters.

Steamboat Willie, the first widely-released Mickey Mouse short, is set to go public domain in 2024. After decades of meddling from Disney and other giant CEOs, let’s hope the public gets what is rightfully ours. Disney built an empire on the public domain and it can finally start giving something back.

Public Domain Day is a celebration and a tragedy. “Under the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1965 would be entering the public domain this year.”

Just talking about films, these great movies would be public domain this year:

  1. Thunderball, the third James Bond movie and the source of many of its iconic scenes
  2. War and Peace (parts 1 and 2) - the first half of the Soviet epic that some consider one of the greatest films / set of films ever made. It had a staggering budget, opulent sets, and a war scene with what looks like tens of thousands of extras.
  3. For a Few Dollars More - the second spaghetti Western in the “dollars trilogy” leading up to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

Because of the greed of a small number of corporations, and for the benefit of a tiny number of people, those films are kept in copyright for another 40 years, until 2065.

“In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1993 might be entering the public domain!”

This is the real benefit and tragedy of the public domain. Although Mickey Mouse is the most visible effect of Disney’s stealing of the public domain from the Constitution (Article I, Section 8), the real tragedy is the works that are commercially unviable. For all the problems I have with Disney, they take archival very seriously. A preserved copy of Snow White will outlive us all.

No, the problem is the artistic works we’ve never heard of. “The true tragedy is that of forgotten films that are literally disintegrating while preservationists wait for their copyright terms to expire.” Some works are nowhere near commercially viable enough to untangle the rights. Warner Bros. owns Citizen Kane (1941), but who owns King of the Zombies, released that same year? Who is spending thousands of dollars to archive it? This is the work that could be done by film archives, but the cost of lawyers to find out who owns the rights, then finally paying royalties to the owner, is too high for a niche work.

“Amor de Perdição” (Doomed Love, 1979) is one of the most beloved obscure films on Letterboxd, but has only been seen by 700 users. It would be nice if it were easily available so people could see the lighting, which has been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

So under the old copyright laws, here are some movies that probably would be public domain this year, enabling them to live a second life:

  1. The Thief and the Cobbler - the most technically sophisticated 2D animation ever made. The restoration is trapped in copyright hell.
  2. Sonatine - Contemplative “gangster” movie that avoids cliches. Beautiful beaches and Beat Takeshi. Soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi and reminiscent of his prior work on My Neighbor Totoro.
  3. The Blue Kite - Depicts recent history of China, banned there.
  4. Ghost in the Machine - Cheesy thriller about a killer inhabiting electrical devices. Shows some of the public unease with new computers.

At a public domain day event, one suggestion was a hit with the room: return copyright to an opt-in system. Before 1978, you had to proactively register and renew copyright. Now, it automatically applies to just about anything. Most of the records of ownership simply don’t exist anymore, these are legally “orphan works” that nobody can release or profit from.