The Possible Return of the Public Domain 

When they were originally codified in America, copyrights lasted just 14 years, with the option for a single 14 year renewal. That length has been extended several times, but it was in the late 20th century that copyright terms really became problematic. Thanks to changes made at the behest of Disney1 and other major corporations, copyrights have become nearly perpetual, and it’s been 40 years since previously copyrighted works entered the public domain.

Until the 1970s, copyright terms only lasted for 56 years. But Congress retroactively extended the term of older works to 75 years in 1976. Then on October 27, 1998—just weeks before works from 1923 were scheduled to fall into the public domain—President Bill Clinton signed legislation retroactively extending the term of older works to 95 years, locking up works published in 1923 or later for another 20 years.

That drought might finally be nearing an end. Ars Technica spoke with folks on both sides of the copyright debate, and at present, another copyright extension is definitely less than certain. We’ll see what happens before 2019, however.


  1. The laws have largely been changed to protect the value of Mickey Mouse. This always struck me as insanely hypocritical, given just how much of Disney’s value is derived from public domain works, including Snow White, Cinderella, and dozens of others. ↩︎