Public Domain Day

Robert C. Binkley died on April 11, 1940, so his life + 70 years copyright term expired when the new year rang in last night. Since copyright was an interest of his, I thought it would be worth working out the consequences of this.

Peter Hirtle’s “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States” helps work out what this means. In RCB’s case, the only change is that his unpublished works are now in the public domain in the US. Anything he published without a copyright notice, or published with notice but the family failed to renew the copyright, has been in the public domain for years. Publications whose copyright was renewed remain in copyright for 95 years after the date of publication. Project Gutenberg’s edition of Copyright Renewals 1950-1977, by the US Copyright Office, lists only these renewals:

  • New governments of central Europe (1924), by Malbone W. Graham Jr., assisted by RCB: renewed by Graham in 1952: enters the public domain Jan. 1, 2020.
  • Realism and nationalism, 1852-1871 (1935): renewed by my father and uncle in 1963, enters the public domain Jan. 1, 2031.
  • Selected papers of Robert C. Binkley (1948), ed. Max Fisch: renewed by Fisch in 1975, enters the public domain Jan. 1, 2044.

So I’ve got a decent chance of living long enough to see all his books in the public domain under current American copyright law. To determine the status of his articles would take a lot of work: I don’t think his heirs renewed any of them, but presumably he would have assigned his copyright to the publishers of the journals in which the articles appeared, and they would have renewed the copyright on the journal volumes as a whole. The likelihood is therefore that his articles will enter the public domain 95 years after publication, with the last of them (“Citing Photographic Reproductions”, Journal of Documentary Reproduction 22 (December, 1939), 304-305) staggering into the public domain on Jan. 1, 2034.

The change in status of his unpublished works means that pieces I’ve posted on this blog are now protected only by my copyright in the presentation and not by inherited copyright in the work itself. There’s the further wrinkle that I live in Canada, but the host for this blog is in California; I won’t even try to work out the ramifications. Unless I’m missing something, the Internet Archive has jumped the gun by releasing New Governments of Central Europe and Realism and Nationalism, but they’ll get no quibble from me.

In light of the current debate on Bill C-32 in Canada, which in its current form would extend fair dealing rights in certain areas and then snatch them away again for digital works by making digital locks trump all fair dealing, here’s something Bob wrote about copyright in 1929, when he was arguing for the possible use of copyright laws to force publishers to use durable paper at least for their legal deposit copies:

Finally there is the device, available as a last resort, of making use of copyright registration laws to secure the use of good paper. There are very grave objections to such an interference with rights to intellectual property; such legislation must not be drawn without taking all interests into account; but among the interests must be included the right of the future generations to receive from us an adequate record of our history as we have received the records of the past.

(“The Problem of Perishable Paper”, in Primo congresso mondiale delle biblioteche e di bibliografia. Atti del 1° congresso mondiale delle biblioteche e di bibliografia (Roma: 1931), vol. 4, pp. 77-85, at p.83; reprinted in Selected Papers.)

(Now that article was published in Italy in 1931, without US formalities of notice or renewal, so provided it was in the public domain in the source country on Jan. 1, 1996, it’s in the public domain in the US now, unless the republication in the US in 1948 nullifies that…)


1 response to "Public Domain Day"

  • L. Gitelman wrote:

    Thank you for this. I'm a RCB fan and have been lurking for a while. It is rare that the works of someone who has been dead for 70 years can be so startlingly relevant to present concerns. RCB's _Manual_ is one of my favorite books, geek that I am, partly because I think of it as one of the world's least digitizable books. Best wishes,