Happy New Year, everyone! For those of us interested in the public domain, January 1 is “Public Domain Day,” the day on which works have traditionally been added to the public domain once their terms of copyright protection expire.
For the last twenty years, this has consisted of making wistful lists of the works that should have entered the public domain this year, if not for the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act. And while I don’t doubt those lists will still be made, this year there’s something new in addition. In 2019, formerly copyrighted works will finally begin entering the public domain again—twenty years delayed.
Newly free are written works by Kahlil Gibran, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, P.G. Wodehouse, and D.H. Lawrence, as well as many others. Freed music includes works by Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, and Bela Bartok. And the newly public domain films include Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments, and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. Duke Law has a list of over a thousand works (in an Excel spreadsheet file) that will enter the public domain tomorrow.
Of course, this batch doesn’t include some of the more contentious works that have been hovering just out of reach of the public domain for all this time. For example, there’s the final Sherlock Holmes short story collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, whose in-copyright status the Conan Doyle estate unsuccessfully argued meant that Holmes should still be considered under copyright as a whole. It was published in 1927, so it is still four years away from freedom under these rules. And Disney’s 1928 Steamboat Willie, which some consider one of the driving forces behind the 1998 copyright extension, still has five years of protection left. That’s five years in which Disney could, theoretically, begin once more to agitate for another copyright extension, to avoid opening the can of worms of putting a version of Mickey Mouse in the public domain.
But in fact, the key victory may already have been won for copyright reform. In an Ars Technica article from January 2018, Timothy B. Lee observed that the last twenty years have seen a dramatic shift in the general public’s awareness of copyright-related issues, largely due to the way the Internet has become such a huge part of everybody’s life in that time.
For example, the Stop Online Piracy Act of 2012 saw a huge online protest against legislation that would have required ISPs to blacklist sites accused of promoting piracy—something that could never have happened in the 1990s. Lee observes those protests effectively put copyright legislation into a stalemate, with no significant copyright expansion or reform legislation passed since.
Another important point is that those twenty years have seen the advent of a number of dot-com giants such as Google which have just as big a stake in seeing the public domain grow as Disney and other old-media companies do in seeing it freeze—and which have the necessary size and capital to go toe-to-toe with such companies in lobbying efforts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is significantly larger than it was, and other lobbying groups like Public Knowledge have also come into being.
Weirdly enough, even the Authors Guild—perhaps best known in recent years for fighting a decade-long losing battle against Google’s book-scanning program—is itself on the side of copyright reform, due to its members benefiting from “having access to a thriving and substantial public domain of older works.”
Also, the New York Times reports that publishers are taking note of the implications of new works entering the public domain. Some publishers are putting out new editions of works that are entering the public domain, such as Penguin’s forthcoming new edition of Kalil Gibran’s The Prophet. Meanwhile, Scribner just released a new, “definitive” edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 work The Great Gatsby, hoping to get one last dollop of revenue out of it before the flood of reprints and derivative works that will surely arrive in 2021.
I’m looking forward to seeing just what comes of this new flood of public-domain works—the first such mass copyright expiration in the consumer Internet age. There are dot-coms out there now doing things that were unheard-of the last time newly expired material was up for grabs. What uses will they all make of this new stuff? It’s going to be interesting to find out.
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