Public Domain Day around the World

Written by Andrew Rens on January 1st, 2012

Happy New Year!

Today if you live in South Africa you have received an instalment of the creativity that you’ve been paying for; the books, movies and sound recordings that you supported through the award of copyright monopolies now belongs to you the public. Books by Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Islands in the Stream) and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) are now in the public domain. The writing of Frantz Fanon psychiatrist, philosopher and post colonial theorist are now in the public domain in almost all of Africa. Books and articles by Carl Jung can now be freely copied and adapted.

Movies and sound recordings released in 1961 are now in the public domain in South Africa*; hit songs include Lets Twist Again, Walking Back to Happiness and A Girl Like You by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, and movies include One Hundred and One Dalmatians, West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wikipedia lists more sound recordings and movies released in 1961

But what if you live somewhere else in the world? If you live in a country that applies the international standard for copyright terms established by the Berne Convention then the same works are free in your country. If you are unfortunate enough to be in a country that has departed from the international standard in the Berne Convention then you probably have a long wait. If you live in the United States then you have no published works entering the public domain to celebrate. Professor James Boyle at the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University explains:

What is entering the public domain in the United States? Nothing. Once again, we will have nothing to celebrate this January 1st. Not a single published work is entering the public domain this year. Or next year, or the year after that. In fact, in the United States, no publication will enter the public domain until 2019.”

How do you figure out if something is in the public domain in South Africa?

For musical, literary and artistic creations (what copyright law calls ‘works’) the term of copyright in South Africa is the life of the author plus fifty years. The fifty years is actually a bit more than than fifty years, because it ends at the end of the year on which the author died. As a result, the 1st of January every year is the day on which new works enter the public domain, or least should enter the public domain if copyright terms are not extended again.

How it works is this. If an author died during 1961 then in South Africa, that author’s works enter the public domain in South Africa. It doesn’t matter whether that author wrote in an another country which has retrospectively extended the copyright term, such as Germany, in South Africa you are free to copy, change and distribute the entire work.

If an author died before 1961 then her work is already in the public domain. If the author died after 1961 or is still alive then the work is still in copyright, unless the work was published pseudonymously or anonymously and the author’s actual identity was not revealed, in which case the copyright expired fifty years after publication. For  sound recordings and films copyright expires after fifty years in countries that use the Berne Convention international standard.

What else enters the public domain today? Please use the comments to list movies and sound recordings released in 1961, and authors, artists and composers who died in 1961.

Others whose works enter the public domain today in South Africa:
H C Bailey, Joanna Cannan, Louis Ferdinand Céline, Jessie Redmon Fause, Kenneth Fearing, Moss Hart, Claude Houghton, George S. Kaufman, L A Lewis, Oliver Onions, Norvell W Page, Isabel Paterson, Frank Richards, E Arnot Robertson, Henry Morton Robinson, Mazo de la Roche, Alice Grant Rosman, Clark Ashton Smith, Angela Thirkell, James Thurber, Patricia Wentworth,
Thomas Beecham, Percy Grainger
Eero Saarinen (architect), James Thurber (Cartoonist)

*Although a movie or a sound recording is in the public domain a literary or musical work that is used in it may still be in copyright. That doesn’t meant that you can’t remix the the movie or sound recording but it does mean that your use of the literary or musical work (if it is in copyright) must be either licensed or permitted under an exception. An example of how this works; Are you lonesome tonight? was released by Elvis Presley in 1961 but the music and lyrics date from the 1920’s so there are no restrictions on remix.

Edited to add: Here is a more extensive list of creativity that enters the public domain in life + 50 jurisdictions.


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