With the trend in recent decades being toward perpetual copyright protection, what will become of the idea of the public domain?
Traditionally, copyright holders lost their copyright after some number of years after death. Their works reverted to the public, to be used and owned in common. Over time, this has given us a rich shared cultural base of literature, and all writers, no matter what their attraction or aversion to "the classics" have benefited by this.
But with estates now holding on to copyrights in perpetuity, this stream of literature freshening the common ocean is being dammed off. The idea that you descendants are more worthy of benefiting from your work is not only sort of selfish, it creates a sort of aristocratic system whereby, through accident of birth, you may be entitled to wealth you had no part in generating. Tolkein's work, for example, should have already entered the common domain, and yet changes in copyright law (if I remember correctly, made in the early 1990's) extend this time till somewhere around 2060. Plenty of time to get the laws changed again, to add on a few more decades.
A far worse example is the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose descendants control with an iron fist. If ever there was someone whose writings and speeches should be made available to all, it's Dr. King. And yet, they vigorously defend their right to profit from any use of his words or image. This is a great harm done to society, and is not how copyrights were designed to operate.
I think this trend is wrong, and, as someone who owns many dozens of copyrights in a lot of different mediums, it occurred to me that I could do something about it.
First, using creative commons licenses, rather than traditional copyright protection.
Alternately, I could voluntarily forfeiting my copyright by posting it copyright free at some point. I'm currently thinking that a voluntary limit of twenty years after I create it. If I haven't done anything with it in twenty years, tough luck for me.
By voluntarily giving up our rights to control our work, we allow others to use and perhaps expand on it. While this is unlikely, it might be nice to see someone use your work as the basis for their own. Without copyright, they are more likely to be open about it, and acknowledge your work in theirs. With everyone running in fear of copyright enforcement actions, it might be a breath of fresh air to see someone just putting their stuff out there for everyone.
I think that renouncing our copyrights while we're alive eliminates the possibility of them being held by our descendants (some of whom we might never know) forever. It's sort of scary, but I think it may be a good way to go for society as a whole. We're so used to thinking of protecting our prerogatives, it might feel pretty good to let everyone benefit, and give up our copyrights after a while.