A recognized part of society’s IP bargain is that after enough time has passed, a work or invention will become public domain. Others are then free to modify the original work, build upon it, and add value.
The public domain also includes works for defiling, too, as “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Echols v. CIR, 935 F. 2d 703, 707 (5th Cir. 1991).
The recent rise of “mashup” books reflect the broad scope that the public domain affords to later creators. These books often combine the story, characters, and setting of literary classics with elements from supernatural genres—vampires, werewolves, etc.
Examples are remarkable: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen. Little Women and Werewolves, by Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand.
These new old works are not limited to print, either. This year will see the release of the full-length feature film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter:
President Lincoln’s mother is killed by a supernatural creature, which fuels his passion to crush vampires and their slave-owning helpers.
We have the limited copyright duration required by the Constitution to thank for these works. This limited duration is a balance of competing public claims: Creative work should be rewarded, but private motivation must promote public availability artistic works in the long run. One wonders if the Founders would have struck a different balance had they known of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. No doubt Jane Austen’s heirs could have prevented zombies from invading her work, if they owned eternal copyrights.