The more than ironic decision last week by Amazon to delete George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from the Kindle (where people had paid for the books) rightfully gained worldwide attention, but what was missed in the coverage was a more important point: that Orwell’s works should be in the public domain in the United States to begin with.
Copyright over the printed word was established on the principle of protecting the works of authors, and yet today in the United States copyright for books is extended to between 70-125 years AFTER the death of the writer, protecting only the interests of the book company with the rights to the book.
It hasn’t always been this way though. Early copyright laws offered protection for 25 years after publication, and have crept up in length over the last 100 years. But how long is fair, because not every country offers the same protection. This paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for 1984:
Nineteen Eighty-Four will not enter the public domain in the United States until 2044 and in the European Union until 2020, although it is public domain in countries such as Canada, Russia, and Australia.
1984 entered the public domain in Australia in the year 2000, 50 years after the death of Orwell, although thanks to the US Free Trade Agreement, Australia has extended the term of copyright protection to 70 years for books published before January 1, 2005.
That the length of copyright is a corporate scam is a given, but in the consideration we often lose sight of the greater good. The works of Orwell are regarded as some of the most influential works of the first half of the 20th century, works that are not only taught in schools, but works that have influenced our understanding of mankind and have even contributed to the English language. If ever there was a strong public benefit for works entering the public domain, the works of Orwell are near the top of the list.
So why aren’t they in the public domain in the United States? Orwell has been dead nearly 60 years, and yet these masterpieces of literature are not freely available. Amazon did the wrong thing in deleting Orwell’s works from the Kindle, but the bigger crime is that these works are still under copyright in the United States to begin with.
If you do live in Australia or Canada, you can legally download Orwell’s works from Project Gutenberg Australia here.