The public domain is open again. What’s up for grabs?

Due to a 1998 law, the public domain was put on pause for 20 years. Now that law is expired.

Today marks the first “Public Domain Day” in the United States in two decades. Legally copyrighted works 95 years old or older may now be released for artistic transformation. But why is this important to writers or artists, most of whom typically enjoy copyright protection over their work?

I am by no means anti-copyright. I don’t have the liver to be a pirate. I also want to make as much money as I can on my writing while I’m alive and I know others using my work for profit inhibits that.

However, I also don’t think art needs to be under strict trademark protection for nearly a century. In the United States, copyright laws are nearly as old as the Constitution. Back then, most art was protected for a term less than 30 years (14 years, with the ability to extend another 14). This seems reasonable to me. After 30 years, it’s time to share your art with the world (or at least let schools share it with their classrooms without fear of heavy penalty). This is especially true with early 20th century works, which are now at risk of being lost forever due to the poor quality of the originals.

1998 was the last time copyright law was renegotiated. California representative Sonny Bono’s Copyright Term Extension Act effectively paused works from entering the public domain for 20 years by extending the term from 75 to 95 years.

To put this into context, here are a list of works that would be available for artistic transformation today if it weren’t for the CTEA of 1998:

  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Books by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Zora Neale Hurston
  • Universal monsters Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man
  • Steamboat Willie (the first successful Mickey Mouse cartoon – hence the law’s nickname, “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act”)

And if the 1978 extension from 57 to 75 years hadn’t gone through, we’d be able to use works from as recent as 1962!

Now let’s talk about what you can use starting today. After a lengthy pause, anything released in the year 1923 and earlier is now available with no exceptions. This means epigraphs & quotations for your book, or some killer hip-hop mash-ups if that’s your thing. Maybe find a new movie to sync up to a classic rock album?

Books & Stories

  • Robert Frost’s “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening”
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon
  • Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion
  • Stories by P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and Edith Wharton

Films

  • Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments
  • James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon
  • Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd
  • Our Hospitality starring Buster Keaton

Music & Musicals

  • Noël Coward’s London Calling!
  • “Yes, We Have No Bananas” by Frank Silver & Irving Cohn
  • “Charleston” by Cecil Mack & James P. Johnson
  • Early compositions by Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Gustav Holst, John Phillip Sousa & more

Additional works can be found on a downloadable spreadsheet here:

After 20 years stuck in limbo, this may be the biggest Public Domain Day for quite some time. From here on out (so long as there aren’t any new laws passed), the faucet of fair use will be trickling new pieces of art each January 1st. Check back each New Year to see what goodies will be unearthed.

Until then, go and check out public domain and fair use sources to learn more about the hindrances of strict copyright law, and why it may be time for some reform. If you’re an artist who is still interested in protecting your work, consider obtaining a Creative Commons license. It’s a good middle ground between strict trademarking and fair use, ensuring you retain credit while allowing others to use your work for non-commercial purposes. Licenses can be layered upon depending on your preferences.

The Internet Archive: https://archive.org/

Creative Commons Licensing for your art: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/

The Copyleft Project: https://www.copyleft.org/

Public Domain FAQs: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2019/faqs/

Why It Matters: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2019/why/

Sources for this article:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/first-time-20-years-copyrighted-works-enter-public-domain-180971016/

https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2019/

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