Copyright Law And Public Domain

Yesterday I read an interesting article from Reuters by way of Boing Boing.

Fifty years after it was first released in the United States, Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right” is a hit in Great Britain…

If there are no changes in European copyright law, the track will fall into public domain Jan. 1, 2005. Anyone will be able to release it without paying royalties to the owners of the master or the performer’s heirs.

Copyright is a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. This article put a lot of things in focus for me. People are really interested in what will happen in Europe because 1955 is considered the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Every year more and more recordings will go into public domain.

January 1, 2005 will also see “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets and “Only You” by The Platters enter public domain in much of Europe. In 1956, a whole slew of Elvis songs: “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Hound Dog”, “Love Me Tender” and others. Plus Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and it keeps going.

How about The Beatles? “Twist and Shout” is public domain in Europe in 2013. The Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” in 2014, and “My Generation” by The Who in 2015.

Here in America, our rules are a little more strict. The single that started this off “That’s All RIght” won’t be public domain until 2051. Recordings that were made prior to 1977 enter public domain 95 years after they were recorded. Recordings made in 1977 or later are covered under copyright until 70 years after the artist’s death.

Under that second provision of the law, the first recordings that will enter public domain in the U.S. will be in 2048 for artists that recorded songs in 1977 and died that same year. Interestingly enough, since Elvis died in 1977 his last recording, “Unchained Melody”, will be public domain 3 years prior to his first.

I have actually been looking into U.S. copyright laws because of this interest I’ve taken in recording audiobooks. The rules for literature are a little bit different. Since Project Gutenberg is all about bringing public domain literature to the masses, they have a nice overview of U.S. copyright law.

The easy one is that anything published prior to January 1, 1923 is public domain. It quickly goes downhill from there, and gets fairly complex. Anything published prior to 1978 is under copyright for 95 years, minus some exceptions. Literature created after January 1, 1978 enters public domain 70 years after the death of the author. Literature written prior to January 1, 1978 but not published until after then falls under that same 70 year guideline so it will not enter public domain until 2048. And there are couple even crazier rules about 1989 and 1964. You can read it over at the Gutenberg site.

I would be surprised if European copyright law doesn’t change this year or the next to fall more into line with the U.S. version. There are too many corporate entities that stand to lose too much money if they don’t.