Public Domain Day Is Finally Here!: Copyrighted Works Have Entered the Public Domain Today for the First Time in 21 Years

Ear­li­er this year we informed read­ers that thou­sands of works of art and enter­tain­ment would soon enter the pub­lic domain—to be fol­lowed every year by thou­sands more. That day is nigh upon us: Pub­lic Domain Day, Jan­u­ary 1, 2019. At the stroke of mid­night, such beloved clas­sics as Robert Frost’s “Stop­ping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Yes! We Have No Bananas” will become the com­mon prop­er­ty of the peo­ple, to be quot­ed at length or in full any­where when the copy­right expires on work pro­duced in 1923. Then, 1924 will expire in 2020, 1925 in 2021, and so on and so forth.

It means that “hun­dreds of thou­sands of books, musi­cal com­po­si­tions, paint­ings, poems, pho­tographs and films” will become freely avail­able to dis­trib­ute, remix, and remake, as Glenn Fleish­man writes at Smith­son­ian. “Any mid­dle school can pro­duce Theodore Pratt’s stage adap­ta­tion of The Pic­ture of Dori­an Gray, and any his­to­ri­an can pub­lish Win­ston Churchill’s The World Cri­sis with her own exten­sive anno­ta­tions… and any film­mak­er can remake Cecil B. DeMille’s orig­i­nal The Ten Com­mand­ments.”

Those are just a few ideas. See more exten­sive lists of hits and obscu­ri­ties from 1923 at our pre­vi­ous post and come up with your own cre­ative adap­ta­tions. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are vast and pos­si­bly world chang­ing, in ways both decid­ed­ly good and arguably quite bad. Teach­ers may pho­to­copy thou­sands of pages with­out fear of pros­e­cu­tion; schol­ars may quote freely, artists may find deep wells of inspi­ra­tion. And we may also see “Frost’s immor­tal ode to win­ter used in an ad for snow tires.”

Such crass­ness aside, this huge release from copy­right her­alds a cul­tur­al sea change—the first time such a thing has hap­pened in 21 years due to a 20-year exten­sion of the copy­right term in 1998, in a bill spon­sored by Son­ny Bono at the urg­ing of the Walt Dis­ney com­pa­ny. The leg­is­la­tion, aimed at pro­tect­ing Mick­ey Mouse, cre­at­ed a “bizarre 20-year hia­tus between the release of works from 1922 and 1923.” It is fas­ci­nat­ing to con­sid­er how a gov­ern­ment-man­dat­ed mar­ket­ing deci­sion has affect­ed our under­stand­ing of his­to­ry and cul­ture.

The nov­el­ist Willa Cather called 1922 the year “the world broke in two,” the start of a great lit­er­ary, artis­tic and cul­tur­al upheaval. In 1922, Ulysses by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” were pub­lished, and the Harlem Renais­sance blos­somed with the arrival of Claude McKay’s poet­ry in Harlem Shad­ows. For two decades those works have been in the pub­lic domain, enabling artists, crit­ics and oth­ers to bur­nish that notable year to a high gloss in our his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry. In com­par­i­son, 1923 can feel dull.

That year, how­ev­er, marked the film debut of Mar­lene Diet­rich, the pub­li­ca­tion of mod­ernist land­marks like Vir­ginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dal­loway and Jean Toomer’s Cane and far too many more influ­en­tial works to name here. Find sev­er­al more at Duke University’s Cen­ter for the Study of the Pub­lic Domain,  Life­hack­er, Indiewire, and The Atlantic and have a very hap­py Pub­lic Domain Day.

Pub­lic domain films and books will be added to ever-grow­ing col­lec­tions:

1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Avalanche of Nov­els, Films and Oth­er Works of Art Will Soon Enter the Pub­lic Domain: Vir­ginia Woolf, Char­lie Chap­lin, William Car­los Williams, Buster Keaton & More

The Library of Con­gress Launch­es the Nation­al Screen­ing Room, Putting Online Hun­dreds of His­toric Films

List of Great Pub­lic Domain Films 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (4)
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  • erad says:

    Why do you think copy­right law keeps chang­ing and with every change becomes longer? :)

  • Jason Clearfield says:

    Is there a list of what will be made avail­able start­ing on the 1st?

  • Kyle Murphy says:

    It’s been done specif­i­cal­ly for mas­sive media com­pa­nies to retain exclu­sive rights to prof­it. They lob­by Con­gress to extend the copy­right pro­tec­tion so they can keep mak­ing mon­ey off it. It’s that sim­ple. Mick­ey Mouse would be pub­lic domain by now but that would be a huge blow to the Dis­ney cor­po­ra­tion. Copy­right and pub­lic domain are rel­a­tive­ly new con­cepts. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, any­one should be able to use Micky Mouse in any way for any rea­son, as copy­right laws orig­i­nal­ly con­sid­ered the orig­i­nal author of a work, and did­n’t account for big cor­po­ra­tions orig­i­nal­ly. Dis­ney want­ed to retain the copy­right on Hap­py Birth­day, a song that was writ­ten by a kinder­garten class like 100 years ago. You can’t sing hap­py birth­day in tv or movies with­out pay­ing a huge roy­al­ty for a song that the orig­i­nal authors nev­er reg­is­tered a copy­right for. Not sure if they still own the song or not, or how long until any­one can make a mick­ey mouse movie of their own.

    Any­one could use a char­ac­ter from pub­lic domain then copy­right an orig­i­nal work using the pub­lic domain char­ac­ter.

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