The Sweet, Sweet Public Domain
“The best thing about copyright is that it expires.” -- Peter Hirtle, senior policy advisor, Cornell University Library“What is the public domain?” you ask, “and why is it so important?”
A work enters the public domain when the copyright term for the work expires, or the work is otherwise designated by the author(s) as a part of the public domain (with a CCO license, for instance). The drafters of the US Constitution understood that copyright must have an end date in order for societies to thrive and create new works from those created by past (often deceased) authors. Thus, Article I of the Constitution provides that Congress shall have the power “to promote the progress of science . . . by securing for limited times to authors . . . the exclusive right to their respective writings.”
For works published in the United States in 1923 and 1924, this time has come. In that era, copyright law protected works for a set ninety-five years after the date of publication.
As of January 1, 2019, therefore, all work published in the United States in 1923 entered the public domain. Similarly, on January 1, 2020, all work published in the United States in 1924 will enter the public domain as well. The reason this is particularly exciting is due to the twenty-year gap in the public domain created, in large part, by Disney’s desire to continue protecting Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain through the enactment of the Copyright Term Extension Act. That act extended copyright an additional twenty years and meant that protection for works was extended. Now that the twenty-year gap in the public domain is finally over, we will continue to experience a growing public domain on January 1 for years to come. For instance, on January 1, 2021, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will enter the public domain!
So, what kinds of works are we talking about anyways?
All kinds! Hundreds of thousands of works of music, movies, literature, art—anything that was published in 1923 or 1924, including such works as The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud and musical classics like “YES! We Have No Bananas” as well as Agatha Christie’s “The Man in the Brown Suit” and films like the first adaptation of Peter Pan.
What can you do with a work that is in the public domain?
Whatever you wish! The work can be remixed, republished, copied, sold, built on, transformed into a derivative work—there are endless possibilities. That’s the beauty of the public domain—the copyright has expired and the creative rights are open to us all. To consider the opportunities of creative reuse, read Kirby Ferguson’s article “Allow Me to Rain on Your Public Domain Parade.”
Suggested Reading and Resources
Benson, Sara. “Copyright Reference Guide: Public Domain." University of Illinois Library. Last modified August 28, 2018. https://guides.library.illinois.edu/copyrightreferenceguide.
Brewer, Michael. “Is it Protected by Copyright?” Copyright Advisory Network. 2012. http://librarycopyright.net/resources/digitalslider/index.html.
Hirtle, Peter. “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.” Cornell University Library. Last modified January 2, 2019. https://copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain.