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Current US law extends copyright protections for 70 years from the date of the author’s death. But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years (an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years).  Under those laws, works published in 1954 would be passing into the public domain on January 1, 2011.

This includes:

  • The first two volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of Rings trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers
  • Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception
  • Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!
  • Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend
  • Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, subtitled “The influence of comic books on today’s youth”
  • Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, the fifth volume of The Chronicles of Narnia
  • First issue of Sports Illustrated
  • Director Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr, and Thelma Ritter
  • White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Allen, featuring songs by Irving Berlin
  • I Got a Woman, (Ray Charles and Renald Richard)

While authors of famous and commercially successful works have incentive to renew the copyright for a second term of 28 years, statistics show that 85% of authors did not renew their copyrights (for books, the number is even higher – 93% did not renew).  This means that if the pre-1978 law were still in effect, about 85% of the works created in 1982 would enter the public domain on January 1, 2011. How amazing would that be?

“Imagine what that would mean to our archives, our libraries, our schools and our culture. Instead, these works will remain under copyright for decades to come, perhaps even into the next century. And for most of them – orphan works – that means they will be both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits, without any benefit going to a copyright holder.”

Click here for the full discussion and additional works.