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Happy Public Domain Day US, For Real This Time!

Happy Public Domain Day Everyone! This is a momentous occasion as this is the first year since the 1978 Copyright expansion that the US has actually had one of these. Today, the first works from 1923 will enter the public domain in the US and it is a bittersweet moment for everyone who cares about the progress of art and science. Sweet for the wonderful works that people will be able to distribute freely without risk of being sued or jailed for doing so. Bitter for all the works that have been lost because the owner of the copyright didn’t care about preservation or because the copyright owner cannot be found.

Every year, the Duke Law School compiles a list of works that would have entered the public domain in the US had the US not expanded copyright law in 1978. This year, they have provided an excellent list of works that have actually entered the public domain this year under current copyright law. There is a great list of films, books, and music there that include notable works such as New Hampshire by Robert Frost, The Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B. DeMille, And The Charleston by Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson. There are so many others, to list, but I will leave that to Duke.

For us, it is all about what could have been. Duke also included in its writings a list of many of the works that would be entering the public domain under pre-1978 copyright law. There are several popular books, such as The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick, A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and  A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Movies, such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Manchurian Candidate, and How the West Was Won. Music, including Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan, Surfin’ Safari by The Beach Boys, and Big Girls Don’t Cry by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio.

But in the realm of games, there are actually two works that I have been able to find that would be entering the public domain had the US still had 56 year copyright terms. Those being Space Wars! and Marienbad, two mainframe developed games from 1962. Space Wars! is the grandfather of modern gaming and is well known by gaming historians as a two player space battle between two ships. Marienbad is a puzzle game in which the player removes matchsticks with the goal to not be the last person removing a match stick. Neither game was ever made commercially available as they only ran on immovable mainframe computers, but they both introduced the world to computerized gaming.

Yet, under pre-1978 copyright law, works had to be renewed after the first 28 years, and the vast majority of works were never renewed. This means that many games from 1990 would be entering the public domain today as well. In 1990, the Genesis was a year old and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released. The NES was still going strong. And many many amazing games were released, including:

  • Actraiser
  • Bomberman
  • Columns
  • Dragon Quest 4
  • F-Zero
  • Gargoyle’s Quest
  • King’s Quest 5
  • Mega Man 3
  • Ninja Gaiden 2
  • Phantasy Star 3
  • Railroad Tycoon
  • Sim Earth
  • StarTropics
  • Ultima 6
  • Yo! Noid
  • And so many others

Going even further back in copyright law, the original terms were 14 years, with the option of renewing for an additional 14 year term. This means that games from 2004 could be entering the public domain had we had the original copyright term length today. This list includes games from the PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, Dreamcast, some of the first mainstream mobile phone games and many portables.

  • Army Men: Sarge’s War
  • BloodRayne 2
  • City of Heroes
  • Dragon Quest 8
  • Jak 3
  • Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
  • Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
  • Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
  • Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
  • Red Dead Revolver
  • The Sims 2
  • Viewtiful Joe 2
  • Warioware: Twisted
  • X-men Legends
  • Zoo Tycoon 2
  • And so many others

But this is all a dream. Modern copyright has robbed us of many of these games in playable format on modern systems. Most games are only available to those with enough money to hunt down and preserve the original formats, while leaving the rest of us to seek black market solutions for playing them. Even simple preservation efforts are forced to undergo expensive lobbying and legal battles just to make sure the games are not lost to future generations. In reality, most people being raised today will never play the vast majority of these games and never will.

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