If Copyright law was still the way the Founding Fathers intended, anything copyrighted before 1955 would be in the public domain today. A number of noteworthy things came into being in 1955.
But like Duke University’s Center of Public Domain Studies, I’m a bit more concerned about the stuff that isn’t as noteworthy.
Pre-1922 books are free to copy and use however you please, which means, among other things, Google has completely digitized and indexed them. When the question came up in the local newspaper about freezing the appendix as a medical treatment, it literally took me minutes to verify that, yes, at one time this was a conventional medical treatment. And it didn’t take much longer to find when the treatment started to fall out of favor. Using conventional library science methods, it would have taken hours to find out that much, and that’s assuming easy access to a huge university library. The contents of those old books isn’t as useful as it was when they were new, but for historical purposes, it’s still as useful as ever.
And those public domain books do still have commercial benefit. Offering those titles for free in electronic form helps Amazon and B&N sell more Kindles and Nooks.
And sometimes you can unearth forgotten gems. People speak of lost arts, but as long as those arts were once documented in a book, you can find them again. I suppose that in the future, the only truly lost arts will be the ones that emerged after 1922 but then fell into disuse.
For nearly 150 years, 56 years was long enough to commercially exploit a copyright.It basically meant that if someone produced a smash hit of any sort, they could benefit from it for very nearly their entire adult life, unless they produced the hit at a very young age and/or lived exceptionally long.
But for some reason (cough. Disney! cough.) that’s not good enough anymore. Senators and representatives make and renew onerous copyright laws, then pirates whatever they want, including current, popular business books. Do as they say, not as they do.
I’m not anti-copyright. But all creative work is derived from something else, so eventually, those derivative works should go back into the commons. Walt Disney benefited in its early years from the existence of the public domain. The most blatant example was how Disney waited for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to pass into the public domain in order to avoid paying royalties. But now companies like Disney have changed the rules, making it more difficult for a future Disney-like company to come into being. That’s good for Disney, but bad for everyone else.