Happy New Year! I hope that we’re all having a nice quiet morning to recover from whatever happened last night which is officially a year ago now and we won’t discuss it further. What we will discuss is that today is the momentous day that new works enter the public domain in the United States, which has not happened in over 20 years! In fact that’s so long that we might not be entirely clear on what “Public Domain” means or what works we’re talking about here. So let’s discuss!
The works entering public domain this year are those that received copyright protection under the Copyright Act of 1909 in the year 1923. But only those that were copyrighted in 1923. The most recent Copyright Act was in 1976 which set the currently copyright term limit of 70 years after the death of the author or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter. It has been 95 years since 1923 so those works become eligible in 2019. In 2020 we’ll get works from 1924 and so forth and so on. This process will continue on a yearly basis unless someone loses their damn mind and extends copyright protection in the US again even though we already have the longest copyright term limits and it’s frankly pretty ridiculous. But check back in 2023 when we start coming up on when “Steamboat Willie” aka the first official appearance of Mickey Mouse is scheduled to enter public domain.*
So what works are we talking about? The Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is yours to use however you want. Print up mugs, tee shirts, driftwood hangings, cross stitch patterns, etc. with the quote “I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep” to your heart’s content without owing anyone a dime for it. The Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim also enters public domain so if you yourself are making a film or television show and need something on a screen in the background, you can use this without licensing a damn thing. No audio recordings are entering public domain for a list of strange reasons, primarily that hardly anyone was MAKING audio recordings in 1923, but the sheet music published that year will be available. You can record your own version of the “Charleston” or “King Porter Stomp” without paying anyone mechanical royalties for the privilege. Or, for those of you who are making other kinds of creative works, you can use the lyrics in printed works or have those works performed in a movie or tv show without seeking permission.
Any and all novels or stories published in the US in 1923 are also available to adapt, reinterpret, reimagine, or create long-awaited sequels to. This includes Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links as well as Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, two books by D.H Lawrence, H.G. Wells’s Men Like Gods, Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street” and like a whole bunch of other ones. There’s a good list here on Wikipedia for reference. I know we’ve all gotten used to fanfiction being the domain of the internet, but if you use one of these works you can now make fanfiction that is LEGALLY PUBLISHABLE. And not just in the 50 Shades of Gray “I did a search and replace on the names Bella and Edward and the word ‘vampire’” kind of way, in the 100% free and legal kind of way. Start writing your short stories, novels, scripts, or other material as you see fit.
The notion of copyright may feel a bit quaint these days with memes spreading across the internet like wildfire with no one asking permission of the original creator or owner, and musicians uploading covers and remixes constantly. But it is still the law, and a law that is meant to benefit both original creators AND new artists. We protect works so that artists can get paid when their work is used. We allow works to fall into public domain so that new artist can use those works to build their own creative visions, as reinterpretation is typically a starting point to discovering one’s own voice and goals. The works entering public domain this year are not fresh in the public consciousness in a way that will readily lend themselves to updates or reinterpretations, but I am excited to see what may come out of this release and glad that we are regularly allowing works into the public domain again.
*Couple fun facts here; if “Steamboat Willie” does enter public domain then ONLY the depiction of Mickey Mouse in that cartoon will be in public domain. No using updated Mickey for free. And, there’s some theories that “Steamboat Willie” has always been in public domain due to flaws in the copyright notice when the cartoon first aired but the problem with making that argument boils down to “Disney has too many lawyers.”
Image sources (in order of posting): 'The Pilgrim', Public Domain