Copyright law here in America is pretty much a mess, especially with regards to when copyrights end and works enter the public domain. You might think, as I did, that published works are entering the public domain all the time as their copyrights expire, but that’s not necessarily the case.
In 1998, Congress added a 20-year extension to copyrights. This meant that thousands of published works from 1923, which should’ve become available in 1999, only became available as of January 1, 2019, aka “Public Domain Day.” These works include:
- Movies like The Pilgrim by Charlie Chaplin, The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille, and Safety Last! by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
- Books like Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs, New Hampshire by Robert Frost, and The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
- Songs like “Yes! We Have No Bananas” by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn and “Charleston” by Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson.
Many of these works are becoming available via sites like HathiTrust, Project Gutenberg, and The Internet Archive. In addition to movies, books, and musical pieces, over 1.5 million academic papers published before 1923 can now be downloaded. (Prior to January 1, many of these papers were likely locked away behind paywalls.)
It’s easy to get excited about all of this; indeed, this archiving of older works and making them freely available to everyone around the world is a perfect realization of the internet’s promise and power. However, Duke Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, which is a great resource for all things copyright-related, makes a sobering point:
Unfortunately, the fact that works from 1923 are legally available does not mean they are actually available. Many of these works are lost entirely or literally disintegrating (as with old films and recordings), evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. For the works that have survived, however, their long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate.
The Center’s breakdown of Public Domain Day 2019 offers a lot of excellent background info as to why January 1, 2019 is such a big deal, and how we got in this copyright mess in the first place.
They also point out that if original copyright laws were still intact, published works from as recently as 1990 might now be in the public domain alongside A Wrinkle in Time, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. No, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Surfin’ Safari.”