For First Time in Digital Age, a Copyright Bonanza Is Here

Thousands of works from 1923 about to enter the public domain
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 27, 2018 12:30 PM CST
Next Week, You Can Legally Steal a Robert Frost Poem
This handout photo provided by the National Portrait Gallery shows Robert Frost, by Clara Sipprell Gelatin, c. 1955.   (AP Photo/Clara Sipprell Gelatin, National Portrait Gallery)

Next Tuesday isn't just New Year's Day, it's also Public Domain Day. If the term isn't familiar, it's because the US hasn't had one in two decades. On Jan. 1, thousands of published works from 1923 will enter the public domain, freeing them up for anyone to use however they'd like. Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" is one, as is Charlie Chaplin's film The Pilgrim, and the song "Yes, We Have No Bananas." And many, many more. Details and background:

  • Pause is over: The nation has not seen a mass expiration of works protected by copyright law in 21 years. That's because, in 1998, Congress "hit a two-decade pause button" and added 20 years to the copyright restrictions due to expire that year, explains a post at Duke Law. The pause expires at the first of the year.
  • What's being released: Duke Law has a comprehensive list in PDF form via its main story here. Highlights in different categories follow.
  • Books: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Links, Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay, and Jean Toomer's Cane are among them. As is Robert Frost's collection New Hampshire, which includes the "Snowy Evening" poem. Works by Carl Sandburg, Edith Wharton, EE Cummings, and DH Lawrence are also on the list.

  • Movies: The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille; Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!, which LifeHacker notes includes the famous scene of him dangling from a clock tower; Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality; along with short films by Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and others.
  • Music: One of the big pieces is "The Charleston," the music written to accompany the Charleston dance craze of the 1920s. Lifehacker also singles out “King Porter Stomp," “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Tin Roof Blues," and “That Old Gang of Mine."
  • This is huge: Never before has such a cache entered the public domain in the digital age. Enterprises such as the Internet Archive, Google Books, and HathiTrust are poised to make tens of thousands of works available. “We have shortchanged a generation,” Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, tells Smithsonian. “The 20th century is largely missing from the internet.”
  • Blame Disney: A big reason for the 20-year hiatus is that Disney led the push for it back in the late 1990s, knowing that Steamboat Willie, featuring the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, was due to enter the public domain in 2004. Willie will remain protected until 2024.
  • Annual release: The Atlantic digs into the intricacies of how US copyright law has changed over the years and how we got to where we are today. One thing to know: Now that the 20-year hiatus is over, each New Year's Day for the next several decades will see the release of works published 95 years earlier. Unless the laws change again.
(More public domain stories.)

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