Did you know that before 1974, the overwhelming vast majority of commercially published works in the US were public domain?

“(In the US) Thirty years ago, the public domain was far more expansive. In 1974, federal copyright protection was not automatic. To get it, you needed to distribute copies of your work to the public, and the copies needed to be marked with a copyright notice. Notice of copyright – the familiar C-in-a-circle, along with the name of the copyright owner and the date the work was first published – secured copyright. Distributing copies without notice caused the work to enter the public domain. Indeed, while the copyright system offered authors protection for a limited time as an incentive to encourage them to distribute their works to the public, it also attempted to ensure that most works entered the public domain promptly, so that the public could make unfettered use of them. Copyright law was designed to separate works whose authors wanted copyright protection enough to follow a few simple rules for preserving it, from works that would have been created and distributed anyway.
Thirty years ago, when you saw something you wanted to use or share, the default rule was that you were entitled to do so. Unless the object was marked “do not copy” you were, with some modest exceptions, entitled to assume it was in the public domain, because the absence of a copyright notice ensured that it was in the public domain (even if it hadn’t been before). Not only that, but the notice had to be accurate, had to tell you when the copyright was scheduled to expire, and had to tell you to whom you needed to address any request for permission. The overwhelming majority of potentially copyrightable works didn’t have this notice and entered the public domain the minute copies were publicly distributed. Of the ones that bore the prescribed copyright notice, only a fraction were registered, and of the fraction that were registered, only 15% were renewed, so for most of the copyright-protected works that had the requisite notice, copyright protection lasted only 28 years.”

  • Jessica Litman