Mass copyright expiration carries implications yet unknown

The coming of the new year brings with it one thing that hasn’t been experienced in 20 years – the mass expiration of protections on materials that have been under copyright since 1923. Speculation about the implications of this happening has been on the rise since earlier this year and has reached new volumes in the past several weeks.

Such conjecture is fun, but the musings are little more than thought experiments at this stage. The real impact of what’s to come is impossible to predict, especially considering how the world has changed in the 95 years since the expiring copyrights took force. What new technology and art could be created, warranting new intellectual property protection, is anyone’s guess.

Possibilities seem endless

What follows is our own brief thought experiment about this event, as inspired by those conducted by others.

We start with a look at how technology for delivering copyrighted works has changed. In 1923, movies were black and white, sometimes grainy, and silent. Today, movies are in formats beyond technicolor, digital, high definition and delivered by download over the internet. Most of that technology has only come into general use since 1998, when the last mass copyright expiration happened.

Much the same can be said about the delivery of the printed word. Materials coming into the public domain as of Jan. 1, 2019, were initially copyrighted books. Now, they can be digitized and downloaded for widespread consumption and those who do that won’t fret over claims of infringement.

As a writer for The Atlantic notes, films such as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pilgrim” and C.B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” will be out from under copyright cover, “Allowing any individual or company to release them freely, mash them up with other work, or sell them.”

We don’t think it at all farfetched to imagine an author developing some new computer games or educational software, drawing upon such works with deep roots in culture, but which have been untouchable by copyright.

What access to so much once-protected material will unleash, no one knows. But we will watch with excitement.

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