New Year’s Public Domain Day 2014! The duration of copyright for a work can be very complicated. For many works, it’s the life of the author, plus 70 years. For other works, it’s 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first. For lots of other works, the answer just isn’t very clear. For a simple explanation, you might look at Peter Hirtle’s duration table, and for a more complicated lesson, you might check out the Durationator (I coded the initial version of the Durationator during law school, which is patent pending).
Although how long a work remains protected may be complicated, what is pretty clear is that, in most cases, copyright expires on January 1 of the year following the expiration of copyright. So, every year, copyright scholars have a pretty good idea of what “new old” works will pass from being protected by copyright to being part of the public domain.
So, what’s coming into the public domain in the United States in 2015? Well, perhaps not a lot. You see, because of how copyright duration is calculated, no published works will pass into the public domain in the United States in 2015. However, unpublished works created by authors who died in 1944 will. Notably, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince) and Erwin Rommel (a famous German general in WWII) both died in 1944. So, any of their unpublished personal letters or other unpublished works will no longer be protected by the copyright laws of the United States as of January 1, 2015.
However, if you live in Canada (or in some other countries), the laws are different. This post from Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain discusses the topic in detail. There are some pretty cool works coming into the public domain, if you live in Canada…