Think of the great robbery teams: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid...Bonnie and Clyde...Bill Clinton and Orrin Hatch?
Yes, Clinton and Hatch pulled off one of the greatest robberies of all time—stealing billions of dollars worth of cultural treasures from the public for the benefit of corporations via the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act—written by Sen. Hatch (R.-Utah) and signed into law by President Clinton in 1998. (The bill was given the name of the variety show host-turned-lawmaker after he died in a skiing accident.)
Roughly speaking, the Bono Act lengthened copyright terms by 20 years: New corporate works would be protected for 95 instead of 75 years, and works by individuals for 70 instead of 50 years after the author’s death. What’s more, it gave the same extension to works already published: For works that came out before 1978, that took them from 75 to 95 years under copyright. While before, new works would enter the public domain every year, the Bono Act legislated a 20-year dry spell for the public (“A Brief History of Copyright,” Center for History and New Media).
The U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to issue copyrights and patents “for limited times” in order “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” In other words, the point of copyright is to give creators an incentive to create (Harvard Law Review, 4/09). The Bono Act’s retroactive extensions, though, obviously couldn’t encourage the creation of more decades-old work; they served only as a gift to existing copyright holders, transferring additional rights to them that belonged to the public—with the public getting no benefit in return.
And there’s a tremendous creative loss to the public from the extreme extension of copyright. Works of art always build on what’s come before; retelling old stories in original ways is one of the chief ways that a culture sustains itself. By keeping creations locked up as private property for a century or more, the Bono Act virtually ensures that the new works that inspire artists in their formative years will never be theirs to work with freely.
What follows is a list of just some of the more prominent works of literature that ought to belong to all of us, the same way we collectively own the works of Shakespeare or Dickens or Jane Austen. All of these books—and you could easily make a similar list of plays, films or music—should be in the public domain by now but are not, thanks to Hatch and Clinton’s generosity with the public’s property.
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, 1923
Passage to India by E.M. Forster, 1924
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, 1924
The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain, 1924
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, 1925
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, 1925
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, 1925
The Trial by Franz Kafka, 1926
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, 1926
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, 1926
Notes on Democracy by H.L. Mencken, 1926
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, 1927
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, 1928
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, 1929
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, 1929
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, 1929
Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, 1929
Is Sex Necessary? by E.B. White and James Thurber, 1929
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, 1929
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, 1930
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, 1931
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, 1933
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, 1933
Eimi by e.e. cummings, 1933
Lost Horizon by James Hilton, 1933
Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston, 1934
The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes, 1934
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain, 1934
The World As I See It by Albert Einstein, 1934
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1935
For more on copyright laws and creativity, see Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture (www.free-culture.cc) and the groups Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) and Public Knowledge (www.publicknowledge.org).
Research assistance by Alex Kane.