Welcome to the Public Domain!

Yesterday, something happened for the first time in twenty-one years.

A copyright term expired in the United States.

When Americans awoke on New Year’s Day, 1998, thousands of books, songs and films from 1922 had passed into the public domain as their copyrights expired. Few noticed. After all, the same thing happened every year on the first of January.

But then it never happened again. Later that year, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, retroactively extending copyright protection on works published between 1923 and 1977 from 75 to 95 years. Yesterday, that protection expired, and works from 1923 passed into the public domain.

What does this mean? Well, these works can now be copied, distributed, reused, remixed and rewritten without licensing. Yes, this means that Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” could be used in any commercial, but public domain works can be – and often are – put to more creative use. Nearly two centuries after its publication, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was rewritten as the popular novels and movies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the movie and television series, Clueless was based on Austen’s Emma.

So, what’s entering the public domain this year? Quite a lot. Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain has put together a list of works that are now free for anyone to do with as they wish. Notable titles include Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front and Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf. Cecil B. Demille’s film, The Ten Commandments, also now resides in the public domain as does The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Lon Chaney, and Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim. Buster Keaton’s first feature-length film, Three Ages, is now a public domain work, but his shorts, like 1922’s Cops, have been freely available for two decades.

So, ready to sample “The Charleston” in your new mashup? Hang on, there is a caveat. In October, Congress passed the Orrin G. Hatch–Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act, effectively extending copyright on music published between 1923 and 1972. Musical works published from 1923 to 1946 will not enter the public domain until 100 years after they were first published, musical works published from 1947 to 1956 now have a 110 year copyright term, and musical works published between 1957 and 1972 will not enter the public domain until 15 February 2067.

But let’s not let that rain on our public domain parade. Stop by the Wallace Library to see some first editions from 1923, or check out some public domain books and copy them to your heart’s content. Maybe you’ll even write the next bestseller.

– Thomas San Filippo, Systems and Educational Technology Liaison