For today’s artists to be able to use the works of others freely, said works have to be in the public domain; otherwise, the works would still be protected by copyright laws. Citizens of Colorado might be surprised to learn that no new works have entered the public domain in the U.S. since 1923, according to recent estimates.
Internationally, the duration of copyright laws that apply to a piece of work extends beyond the author’s natural life by 50 years. Conversely, in the U.S., it takes 70 years after an author passes for his work to enter the public domain, and this long stretch of time can give rise to several complications such as finding out who the proper right heir is once the author has died.
It wasn’t always the case that the public had to wait for more than 70 years in order to be able to make use of a beloved work of art. However, over the years, different laws kept increasing the amount of time a piece of work was protected by the copyrights law; for example, in 1998, Congress decided to approve the Copyright Term Extension Act, adding 20 years to the nation’s 50-year time frame back then.
Barring any change on the part of Congress, Americans should expect new works to enter the public domain by Jan. 1, 2019. Afterwards, it can be expected that every new year will bring with it different works for all to use.
Trademarks and copyright laws can be a tricky minefield. Any individual or business planning to put classics to good use but unsure of their legal status may wish to consult a lawyer who can save them the hassle of accidentally infringing on someone else’s copyrights.