John Larrysson Column: 2016 Public Domain

Every year on January first, copyrights will expire under Hong Kong law (Copyright Ordinance Section 17) for people who have been dead for more than fifty years. Copyright only lasts for the life of the author plus fifty years. When the copyright expires the text becomes public property in the same way that the alphabet is owned by everyone. So which writers died in 1965?

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Winston Churchill is best known as England's WWII prime minister. However he also wrote many history books and even a few poems.

Shirley Jackson was an American writer of horror stories. There have been some TV adaptations of her books.

William Somerset Maugham was a gifted writer of many books. He was a doctor and worked for the Red Cross during WWI. He also wrote plays and a great many newspaper articles.

Spike Jones was an American musician, who led a band called the City Slickers. He wrote many comedy songs and has influenced many songwriters.

[audio 2]

Le Corbusier was a famous architect. His real name was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris. Many cities were crowded and many people lived in poor houses. He wanted a practical way for large numbers of people to comfortably live in a small area. He believed that his new architectural ideas would give people better homes.

T. S. Elliot was a modernist American writer of many novels, poems and plays. He eventually left America for England. As a modernist writer he ignored old traditions about how writing was supposed to be done and created his own style.

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As a caution about when copyright expires, I want to use Malcom X as an example. He was a famous religious leader in America. He fought against the often cruel way European-Americans treated African-Americans. He was murdered in 1965 and so his copyright expires January first 2016. However Malcom X co-wrote his autobiography with Alex Haley and the other writer's copyright is still in force. Before copying a book, check the death dates of all the co-writers.

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The public domain is very important; it is the culture that all of us own. You can do anything you want with public domain books. You can print them and sell them. You can make a movie based on them and claim your own copyright on your new creation. It is often pointed out that public domain books are free as in speech, but not free as in lunch! You are free to use the text. However you must pay for the internet access to download it. You pay for paper and ink to print it. But nobody can stop you from using a public domain text or charge you a fee for it.

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Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this article is not formal legal advice. It is based on my reading of the HK Copyright Ordinance and Dr. Alice Lee's Intellectual Property in Hong Kong. No guarantee whatsoever is made that the text is legally accurate. Laws can be changed and may have been modified or overturned after this article was written.


Intellectual Property Department:

Chapter 528 Copyright Ordinance:

Pendleton & Lee, Intellectual Property in Hong Kong:

Read More:

Public Domain in 2015

2014 Public Domain

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column will be published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday. Next issue will be on Jan 12, 2016.

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