If not for Congress, Superman, Lassie and Scrabble would be free for anyone to reproduce tomorrow

December 31, 2013

On Jan. 1, a whole raft of artistic and intellectual works will be making their way into the public domain — or they would be if Congress hadn't extended copyright terms for the umpteenth time in 1998. At its core, copyright is meant to protect authors and creators. But as we've seen recently with a battle over Sherlock Holmes, copyrights can sometimes prevent well-meaning fans from showing the depth of their appreciation for a work by becoming creators themselves.

These days things that were published before 1978 enjoy copyright protections of up to 95 years, but that wasn't always the case. Under the rules Congress made before the most recent term extension, rights-holders of older works were protected for just 75 years — at which point the work would enter the public domain and be free for anyone to use or riff upon.

By that older baseline, the public starting tomorrow would have a huge amount of new and culturally relevant material to work with. It'd cover virtually all films, literature and art made in 1938. Audio recordings from the era are already fair game from a federal perspective, although in some cases state protections might prohibit their use.

None of these items will actually become public-domain works tomorrow, but it's nice to think about what might have been.

Superman

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's man of steel made his debut in comic-book form in 1938. As part of the initial deal with Action Comics, Siegel and Shuster gave up their ownership of the character — although they later sued to try and get him back in a decades-long fight. A 2013 court ruling appeared to finally affirm DC Comics' ownership over Superman once and for all.

"A Christmas Carol"

The 1938 movie based on Charles Dickens' famous book, which starred Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge. Countless American families grew up on the film as it was shown annually throughout the the 1960s and '70s.

M.C. Escher

More specifically, Escher's famous tessellation woodcuts "Sky and Water," which depict a melding pattern of fish and birds.

"Caps for Sale"

The award-winning children's book tells the tale of a hat salesman who wears his wares on his head. When he awakens from a nap to discover that a horde of monkeys has stolen his caps, the salesman has to find a way to retrieve them. If you grew up having failed to read this book, pick up a copy now. It's still on store shelves.

Lassie 

Before it was a movie, and before it was a book, Lassie was a story that appeared in a 1938 issue of the Saturday Morning Post. Author Eric Knight put the canine character into a magazine piece and only adapted it into a novel years later.

"Our Town"

Thornton Wilder's famous play was first performed in January 1938, at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

"While England Slept" 

Winston Churchill in Tehran, 1943. (Zereshk)
Winston Churchill in Tehran, 1943. (Zereshk)

Winston Churchill's book took aim at the British government for its ill-preparedness to handle the rise of Nazi Germany. Its critiques, said one reviewer at the time, "suggest that their author is probably the ablest and most versatile figure in British politics today."

"The Adventures of Robin Hood"

The film featured Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and was among the top-five performers at the box office in 1938.

Scrabble 

The popular word game is owned in the United States by Hasbro and internationally by Mattel. It was first published in 1938 by an architect, Alfred Mosher Butts. To design the first iteration of the game, Butts looked at various sources to determine how often various letters in the alphabet appeared in printed text. In 2008, Hasbro tried to shut down a Web-based Scrabble clone with a copyright infringement claim.

Beyond these are some famous sound recordings of the era, such as the soundtrack to Disney's "Snow White" and Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" radio show that convinced everyone the world really was under attack by aliens. Again, U.S. copyright doesn't cover audio from that period — only newer recordings — but certain states, such as Massachusetts, have additional legal protections.

Update: If you want to get really depressed this New Year's Eve, Duke University has a list of things that would've entered the public domain in 2014 under an even older copyright statute dating to 1909. Going by that law, which provided copyright protections for a total of 56 years, would've meant anything published in 1957 would be fair game starting tomorrow. Items would've included Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," Dr. Seuss' Grinch and be-hatted cat and the Bond novel "From Russia With Love." In film, we would've gotten the legal drama "12 Angry Men" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai," with Alec Guinness. And so on.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Brian Fung · December 31, 2013