Much has been written about how various books, music, films, and so forth have been withheld from entering the public domain. This is due to corporate lobbying of Congress to extend the lengths of copyright retroactively. The main proponent of this has been Disney, in order to protect their cash cow Mickey Mouse.
Since said copyright extensions retroactively apply to previous materials, it’s prevented the United States from getting to enjoy “Public Domain Day,” better known as New Year’s Day. Nothing new is projected to enter the public domain in the US until 2019, barring more Congressional extensions.
For more on Public Domain Day and some of the materials still withheld from public domain, see this article.
Under the copyright laws that existed from 1909 through 1978, works could be copyrighted for a single 28 year term, with one 28 year renewal allowed, or a total of 56 years. This was deemed sufficient for most of the 20th century. It also allowed for the creation of a large amount of the entertainment we still enjoy today.
Popular culture created under the above copyright rule include:
- The most popular superheroes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc.)
- Many of the most popular animated cartoons (Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, and Mickey Mouse himself)
- Various classic movies (“Jaws,” “Citizen Kane,” etc.)
- Classic music such as swing, Elvis, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Motown, etc.
If those copyright terms still existed, material created in 1959 would have entered the public domain as of January 1, 2016.
Looking at just comics and animation, here’s what was created in 1959 that would be now public domain.
Rocky and His Friends
- Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose
- Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale
- Fearless Leader
- Mr. Peabody and Sherman
- Dudley Do-Right
- Various other minor characters
The Quick Draw McGraw Show
- Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey
- Augie Doggie and Doggy Daddy
- Super Snooper and Blabber Mouse
- “Clutch Cargo”
- Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” including Disney’s versions of the public domain fairy tale’s characters, such as the film’s villain Maleficent
Several Green Lantern elements and characters, including:
- Hal Jordan
- Carol Ferris
- Ferris Aircraft
- Coast City
- Abin Sur
Several Superman characters, including:
- Lucy Lane
- Sam and Ella Lane (Lois Lane’s parents)
- Lori Lemaris
Several Flash characters, including:
- Wally West
- The Weather Wizard
- The Mirror Master
- Gorilla Grodd
- The Pied Piper
- Sgt. Rock
- Batman villain Mr. Freeze (under his original name “Mr. Zero”)
- The Silver Age version of Aquaman’s origin, from “Adventure Comics” #260
That’s quite a bit of material that’d be available for anyone to use. All of the above, of course, are still being used heavily by their respective corporate owners. Examples include the “Supergirl” TV show that debuted last year on CBS, and the “Maleficent” movie from 2014.
Alas, none of the above material will enter the public domain under current copyright laws until 2055. That is, barring yet another extension of copyright lengths by Congress. For the public domain and general public’s sake, let’s hope this time Disney, Time Warner, etc. are firmly told “no” by Congress or a Presidential veto.
Image from "Rocky and Bullwinkle" (Jay Ward/DreamWorks Classics)