46

I read in another answer that Fox produced the film I, Robot because they had just acquired the rights to the Asimov collection and wanted to get a big budget movie out of it. I would have thought his books are old enough to already be in the public domain, but obviously I'm not very familiar with the law. When does the copyright expire on his various works?

  • 23
    The movie I, Robot was so different from the book I'm surprised they even needed the rights to the book to make it. – Azor Ahai Oct 24 '18 at 21:26
  • 4
    @AzorAhai - there are enough similarities that permission would have been required, eg the existence of the character Susan Calvin (albeit with a somewhat different time line). – Jules Oct 24 '18 at 22:36
  • 14
    They probably could have done a robots movie without acquiring the rights, but the success was probably much more guaranteed by promoting the movie as being an adaptation of the Asimov books. – Evariste Oct 25 '18 at 7:53
  • 5
    @AzorAhai Being able to slap that name on the movie legally prevents any future lawsuits about being too similar AND it likely increases viewers. Worst case scenario they paid some money and nothing changes, best case is their profits increase by much more than the cost of the license. – Kevin Oct 25 '18 at 17:13
  • 2
    @Jules how about the Three Laws themselves? I'd say their importance outweighs the existence of this or that character by a factor of, what, one hundred million billion? or more? say "Three Laws of Robotics" and immediately the name Asimov comes to mind. Calvin? Who's that? – Will Ness Oct 26 '18 at 7:54
75

This question is covered by the Asimov FAQ:

All of Asimov's work, fiction and non-fiction, was under copyright at the time of the Good Doctor's death. Under current U.S. law, the copyrights for his works published before 1978 will not expire until 95 years after the copyrights were obtained, and those published from 1978 onward will remain in effect for 70 years after his death. Thus these copyrights will remain in effect until dates ranging from 2034 (for his first story published in 1939), through 2072 (for works published in 1977), and works published from 1978 onward will remain under copyright until 2062, although the relevant laws may change between now and then.

(emphasis is mine)

Addendum: User Thunderforge correctly pointed out that the OP specifically mentioned I, Robot, so here is some additional information. As mentioned by Thunderforge, I, Robot was published in 1950, which implies a copyright until 2045. However, most of the stories in this collection were first published a few years before they were collected, so their copyright expires a few years earlier:

Story                    First published  Copyrighted until
=======================  ===============  ================= 
Robbie                   1940             2035
Runaround                1941             2036
Reason                   1941             2036
Catch That Rabbit        1944             2039
Liar!                    1941             2036
Little Lost Robot        1947             2042
Escape!                  1944             2039
Evidence                 1946             2041
The Evitable Conflict    1950             2045
(I, Robot frame story)   1950             2045
  • 3
    Yes, this is the order how they appear in I, Robot. – Ubik Oct 24 '18 at 22:02
  • 80
    "until 95 years after the copyrights were obtained" - It used to be ~50, but that number keeps going up because Disney has a lot of money, so the actual answer is likely to be "never" – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Oct 25 '18 at 8:05
  • 19
    @BlueRaja Then again, people care far more about copyright today, thanks largely to the internet, than they did in the 90s when it was last extended. Disney does have a lot of money, but they will have much more resistance than they used to. We’ll find out what happens as Steamboat Willie approaches copyright expiration in 2023. – Thunderforge Oct 25 '18 at 13:42
  • 2
    Looks like I'll be waiting a long time for a "Foundation" movie series :( – MindS1 Oct 25 '18 at 16:18
  • 4
    @MindS1 Apple announced 6 months ago that they reached a deal with the Asimov estate to produce a TV series. deadline.com/2018/04/… There have also been several attempt to make a movie, so the rights don't seem to be the bottleneck. – Barmar Oct 25 '18 at 19:20
94

There are various terms for US copyright and when the works published in that situation nominally expire.

However, since the 1980s every 20 years a new copyright extension act that includes all works published in a range including 1928 has been passed by the US congress.

This is because Steamboat Willy was published in 1928, the first appearance of Mickey Mouse. Disney forcefully lobbies for a 20 year extension every 20 years.

The next due date is 2023, so we should expect a new copyright extension act to miraculously appear and pass the US house and senate in the next 5 years.

As all of Dr Asimov's works where published after Steamboat Willy, we should expect his works to remain under copyright (at least in the USA) indefinitely, regardless of what the current law states.

Outside of the USA, it is a regular demand of the USA in trade treaties to include copyright extension on the part of the other party. Historically there have been gaps, but they haven't been commercially significant.

As the expiery of century-old works is not a hot button issue for people who don't own century-old works, it is very difficult to defeat the concentrated lobbying power and regulatory capture.

See this article for a more in-depth take on the issue.

Under current law, it lasts 95 years from date of publishing or 70 years from death. Which, as noted, doesn't mean anything of substance.

  • 9
    This seems to be more like a rant about copyright law than a serious attempt to answer the question based on the available publishing dates of Asimov's works – Valorum Oct 24 '18 at 21:23
  • 70
    @Valorum It is an attempt, as accurately as possible, let the OP know when Asimov's works will fall out of copyright? Quoting expiration dates when those dates reliably extend 20 years every 20 years doesn't give an accurate result. The "rant" portion is just giving evidence why you should expect it to happen again. "When will I grow taller than my older brother" should take into account the fact that your older brother is growing as well. – Yakk Oct 24 '18 at 21:29
  • 63
    @Valorum If I asked "When will this pub run out of beer?", the answer needs to not just consider the rate of consumption of my friends, but also the fact that the owner can ring the brewery to get more barrels delivered... – Graham Oct 24 '18 at 23:08
  • 12
    @TylerH I don't assume the law will be changed: I provide a rational argument why it is extremely likely the duration of copyright will be changed long before any of Dr Asimov's work fall out of copyright. – Yakk Oct 25 '18 at 13:50
  • 10
    @TylerH No different than me noticing the sun has risen every morning for at least 19,000 days in a row and assuming that it will do so tomorrow. It's not guaranteed that the law will change, but there's a strong likelihood based on past experience. – TripeHound Oct 25 '18 at 13:59
5

In his autobiography Asimov specifically mentions making sure to renew the copyright on each of his works as the expiration date came up, and how this became more and more of an chore as his body of work increased. If I recall correctly, he has more than 500 books credited to have written or edited.

I don't know, but I would assume that his estate (probably his daughter?) makes a point of looking after copyright renewals, and that you should not expect any of his works to end up in the public domain any time soon.

  • 9
    This answer would be better if you edited in the quote from the autobiography and also if you could add in anything that states his estate are renewing the copyrights. Of course if the latter is just educated speculation that is fine too. – TheLethalCarrot Oct 25 '18 at 11:51
  • 1
    Yes, agreed - I don't have the book at hand, but will add later (assuming I can find it in x hundred pages!). And yes, about the estate is speculation at this point. – mickeyf Oct 25 '18 at 13:45
  • 9
    Copyright renewal is no longer necessary. It was only required before the US joined the Berne Convention in 1988. – Jules Oct 26 '18 at 9:21
  • I looked through volume 2 of his autobiography where I remembered seeing this. However, with no general index and nearly 800+ pages, I did not find the reference. Presumably it would have been in the late 50's or early 60's, when the first of his published works were coming up to 20 years old. Caring very much about ownerships of his works would be totally in character. He had a delightfully high opinion of himself. ("Asimovian Immodesties") If I do stumble across it I'll add it in. – mickeyf Oct 26 '18 at 13:17
  • @Jules True, but nearly everything Asimov wrote was written before 1988. – David Richerby Oct 26 '18 at 17:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.