Among the works that entered the public domain on January 1, 2023, the movie Casablanca certainly attracted a lot of attention.
Rightly so. It’s one of the best loved Hollywood films of all times. In 1977, it was the most frequently shown movie on U.S. television.
The Tomatometer on the Rotten Tomatoes site, which aggregates reviews for movies and TV series, gives it a score of 99% (134 reviews).
The Writers Guild of America West considers its screenplay the greatest of all time.
The film achieved a "near-perfect entertainment balance" of comedy, romance, and suspense.
— Bob Strauss (April 10, 1992), Still the best: Casablanca loses no luster over time. Los Angeles Times
Source: Wikipedia Casablanca (film)
A movie like Casablanca actually comprises multiple artistic works: the screenplay, the movie as an adaptation of that screenplay, plus the stage play that inspired it.
Various other adaptations of the original screenplay were authorized and produced, including for radio in the 1940s and for television in the 1950s and 1980s. In 1998, Warner also authorized the publication of Michael Walsh’s novel As Time Goes By based on the screenplay.
In order for those adaptations to be produced at that time, permission was needed from the copyright owners and, undoubtedly, copyright royalties had to be paid.
Now, 70 years after the death of screenwriter Philip G. Epstein in 1952, the screenplay for Casablanca can be used freely and without limitation by anyone.
Why does copyright exist?
Copyright is intended as a way to protect the ability of copyright owners to generate revenue from their creative content. The copyright owners are usually the authors and their heirs.
Another motivation behind the Copyright Act is to promote the creation of new content.
Let’s be clear: ideas, facts and raw data aren’t covered by copyright.
When a work comes into the public domain
What happens when content enters the public domain and becomes copyright-free?
You don’t need permission to reproduce or use content in the public domain.
Those works are free to be copied, shared, developed, adapted or used by everyone without having to request authorization or pay any copyright royalties.
Moral rights expire at the same time
Even though the moral rights related to a creative work can’t be assigned, they expire at the same time as the right to control the use of the content after the work comes into the public domain.
At that point, the content can be misappropriated or distorted. In other words, it can be used in a way that’s contrary to the original creators’ intent.
Example of misappropriation: associating a work with a cause that wouldn’t be endorsed by the artist who originated that work, such as a progressive song being used in a right-wing politician’s campaign.
How to calculate when a work will enter the public domain
It’s important to understand that the time limit for copyright protection varies according to the territory where it’s applied (rather than the author’s country of origin).
Depending on the country, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime plus 30, 50, 70 or 90 years.
Local legislation may contain other provisions, particularly if the rights are held by a corporate entity.
Date of the author’s death or the work’s publication?
In the U.S., the screenplay for Casablanca became copyright-free 70 years after Epstein’s death.
Instead, the date could have been 95 years after the work’s publication.
In the United States, copyrights owned by an author generally last for 70 years after the death of the author, while a corporation’s copyright lasts 120 years from creation or 95 years from publication, whichever expires first.
Celebrating A Treasure Trove — The Public Domain, The TEDx Vienna Magazine
Casablanca’s copyright wasn’t renewed
Surprisingly, the copyright on the hit film released in 1942 was never renewed. If it had been, copyright protection would’ve lasted 95 years and the work wouldn’t have entered the public domain until 2037.
Another unexpected fact: in Canada, the movie has been in the public domain since 2003!
Until very recently, copyright protection in Canada expired 50 years after the author’s death.
Has this changed with the new legal provisions that came into effect on December 30, 2022?
Public domain on hold in Canada
In 2018, Canada signed the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement, which contained clauses calling for standardization among the three countries’ copyright regimes.
Under the agreement, Canada was required to amend its copyright legislation by December 31, 2022 to make the term of copyright correspond to the author’s lifetime plus the 70 years following their death.
When the federal government adopted the Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on April 7, 2022 and other measures, it included a provision extending copyright protection for 70 years after the author’s death.
That means no new works will come into Canada’s public domain for the next 20 years!
- Read more: Copyright will soon be extended in Canada
This change isn’t retroactive
Here are some real-life examples to illustrate how it works: creative works by Quebec poet Hector de SaintDenys Garneau, who died in 1943, have been copyright-free for 20 years and will remain in the public domain because the change to Canada’s Copyright Act isn’t retroactive.
However, works by Italian writer, journalist and painter Dino Buzzati, who died in 1972, would previously have come into the public domain in Canada on January 1, 2023 but will now have to wait until January 1, 2043.
Also, when counting 70 years, the timeframe doesn’t start until the year has ended. Works such as Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, who died in 1973, would’ve entered the public domain in Canada on January 1, 2024 but will now remain protected by copyright until January 1, 2044.
The same applies to Pablo Neruda and Picasso, who both died in 1973. Their works won’t become copyright-free for another 21 years.