At the end of this month, the last patent issued by the GDR government will be expiring, the twenty year term having passed since reunification in October 1990.
Patent terms are somewhat human, at 20 years—things invented and patented in my lifetime have now fallen into the public domain. Copyright is so much longer (generally, the lifetime of the author plus 70 years) that generations can pass in between the original composition and the public domain. As a result, instead of having free access to works from my childhood, or even my father’s childhood, I have to go back to works that are older than my grandparents.
The East German patent story is interesting because it happens to couple term expiration with a real and memorable event. Of course, copyright expiration is often tied to a historical event: namely, the death of the author. In some cases, that date is especially significant. There has been some discussion about that the copyright on Mein Kampf is set to expire in 2015, 70 years after Hitler’s death, but I’ve never seen any discussion of the fact that between now and then, works by millions of people who were killed during World War II should also be entering the public domain.