Public Domain: Why the US Is on Hold Until 2019

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Ever wonder why birthday parties on TV always feature the song “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”?

While you might be free to sing “Happy Birthday” in the privacy of your own home, recording the song for a public audience constitutes a copyright violation. Warner Music Group owns the rights to “Happy Birthday” until at least 2030 when the song is scheduled to fall into the public domain.

“Public domain” refers to the state of creative works that are not protected by copyright. Exactly what falls under public domain varies greatly from country to country. Some creations — such as titles, ideas, numbers, or facts — are generally not copyrightable by law. Other creative works are automatically copyright upon creation and usually protected by law until a certain number of years after the creator’s death. Presently in the United States, works are protected for the author’s life plus 70 years. Anything created in the United States before the year 1923 is in the public domain.

Copyright restrictions exist for good reason. They protect artists, composers, and other creators from having their work stolen by others.

But copyright restrictions have grown increasingly stringent over the years, lasting longer and longer with each new passing law. When the first copyright statute was passed, it only protected works for 14 years, with the option to extend copyright for another 14. Today, copyright can easily last two lifetimes automatically.

Not being able to sing “Happy Birthday” on TV may not seem like a big deal (though hearing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” tends to jar one’s suspension of disbelief). But the restrictions of copyright laws can also be restrictive for artists and creators.

There is nothing new under the sun,” the author of Ecclesiastes once said. All creative works are built upon what was created before them. It’s impossible to create something 100% original in a world where millions of creative human beings have lived before us.

Until now, January 1 marks the date that a year’s worth of creative works fall into the public domain for the first time.

But recent laws have ensured that we won’t see anything new under the sun until 2019.

What’s the hold up? Find out in the timeline below.
US public domain on hold infographic

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