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Public Domain Day 2019

Published in 1923, this volume has now entered the public domain.

Published in 1923, this volume has now entered the public domain. Photograph by Lingyu Wang.

Today’s post is authored by Lingyu Wang, M.A. student in Media, Culture, and Communications, NYU Steinhardt, Class of 2020 and Scholarly Communications Assistant, NYU Libraries

While people in Times Square were celebrating the New Year with fireworks and cheers, something else worth celebrating was happening in the library. As time turned to January 1, 2019, most works published in 1923 entered the public domain in the United States–that is, federal-granted copyrights of these works have evaporated into the holiday air, and the works become completely free for copying, distributing, remaking, and performing, within the scope of the United States. This is a big moment for us who are concerned with public knowledge and creativity. To put it in a somewhat romanticized way, this year marks the beginning of a “20-year thaw” after a long period of freeze since Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) came into effect in 1998.

Public Domain exhibition curated by Jasmine Sykes-Kunk in the Taminent Library/University Archives reading room. Photograph by Lingyu Wang.

Public Domain exhibition curated by Jasmine Sykes-Kunk in the Taminent Library/University Archives reading room. Photograph by Lingyu Wang.

Exciting as it is, this newly expanded public domain does not cover all works from 1923. As Cornell’s copyright guide explains, the rather large category of sound recordings does not fall into public domain–they will stay in copyright for four more years. This is the result of another act, the Orrin G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act (MMA) of 2018, which gives 100-year copyright terms for sound recordings published between 1923 and 1946. The good news is that, while the sound recordings themselves are still copyright protected, their underlying compositions and texts now may well be in the public domain, so although one cannot do much to the recordings themselves, it’s now possible for musicians to record and perform those songs without paying a licensing fee.

Advertisement for copyright and patent preparation services from 1906. Public domain.

Advertisement for copyright and patent preparation services from 1906. Public domain.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Copyrightpirates.jpg

Outside this restricted category, nearly everything else has joined the public domain–books, films, photos, sheet music, architecture, artworks, and so on. This does not mean accessing the materials is also free, though. After all, being in public domain means being available for commercial use as well. Published materials will be sold as usual and materials will remain locked behind database paywalls as well. Open online archives like the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg have been doing a lot of work in making these materials freely available, but a considerable amount of materials have yet to be digitized. Considering that more than 50,000 titles are now entering the public domain, making them all freely available will be a huge project for volunteer and professional archivists alike, not to mention the titles that are now on the wait list for public domain in the coming years.

Copyright term expansion graph

Copyright term expansion graph.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Bell%27s_graph_showing_extension_of_U.S._copyright_term_over_time.svg

As a side note, there are more than just 1923 works that now enter the public domain. Unpublished works that have identified authors that died by 1949 are now in the public domain; unpublished works with anonymous/pseudonymous authors, corporate authors (works made for hire), or unknown author, as long as they are created by 1899, are also now in the public domain. In libraries and archives, as an Internet Archive blog pointed out, out-of-publication works first published between 1924 and 1943 (i.e. in their last 20 years of copyright) are also available for free copying and distributing, even though they are not in the public domain yet. There are also foreign works and various corner cases that now fall into the public domain under Berne Convention and other special codes–iterating them all will be impossible for the length of this blog.

2019 is a big year for public domain, although much work is to be done to make these newly “freed” materials openly accessible to the public. Copyright is not a natural right, it is simply a legal formation to financially support authors. In the last century, the protection of copyright has been persistently extended far beyond its initial purpose and beyond the lifetime of any human author–each extension pushed by corporate copyright holders. Today, at the end of the 20-year freeze, more and more authors, scholars, and creators are addressing this issue, and starting to make their works freely available through creative commons licenses and public domain dedications. Benefiting from this growing public intellectual space in various ways, we really need to reconsider the question: why do we want copyright, after all?

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