New Year’s Day 2019 was a landmark for American copyright law. For the first time in twenty years, published works of expression—including books, music, and films—started moving out of copyright protection and into the public domain.
U.S. copyright law gives creators several exclusive rights over their creative and original works. These include, for example, the right to control copying and distribution of protected works, subject to certain exceptions and limitations. But, eventually, protections end. The copyright term determines when a work falls out of copyright protection and becomes a public domain work.
Every country decides for itself when a work protected under its law enters the public domain in that country, subject to international treaties. Public domain works are free for anyone to copy, excerpt, rework, and adapt without anyone’s permission. A federal law enacted in 1998 extended the term of U.S. copyright protection to all works. As a result, pre-1998 works that would have become part of the public domain in 1999 had their protection extended in the United States.
Works from 1923 entering the public domain in January in the United States include Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” a Tarzan story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, several stories by comedic writer P.G. Wodehouse, and a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. A Rin Tin Tin film, Cecil B. DeMille’s black-and-white Ten Commandments, films featuring Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, and D.W. Griffith’s “The White Rose” are also among 2019’s public domain class.
This commences a new phase of U.S. copyright law, and from now on, works will be entering the public domain on a yearly basis.
Other authors included in this year’s class of public domain works include: Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.M. Forster, Carl Sandburg, Virginia Woolf, William Butler Yeats, Hugh Walpole, Nikolay Gogol, Maxim Gorky, Zane Grey, H. Rider Haggard, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Ring Lardner, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, G.K. Chesterton, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie, Jean Cocteau, Sherwood Anderson, and H.L. Mencken.
This represents a completion of the cycle of copyright protection for many works. The U.S. Constitution authorized Congress to establish copyright laws that would result in the enrichment of the populace as a whole. Authors are rewarded for their creation, the public gets to enjoy those works, and eventually those works enter the public domain.
Copyright protection is one side of the coin of incentivizing new creations—authors are empowered to seek benefit from limited control over their works. The other side of the coin represents when copyright protection ends, and new authors can build on what went before.
For example, in 1948 composer Cole Porter produced the stage musical “Kiss Me, Kate,” based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” In 1999, Gil Junger and Touchstone Pictures produced the film “10 Things I Hate About You” with Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, another reworking of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. Even though the concept of copyright law and the public domain didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, he applied what we now know as public domain principles by taking existing stories and reworking them to produce his own works.
The Copyright Office will celebrate the public domain with a Copyright Matters event on January 16. A choir will perform selections from public domain musical works and speakers will discuss the significance of the public domain concept to copyright law and the culture.
The Public Domain: Celebrating the Lifecycle of Copyright is part of the U.S. Copyright Office’s Copyright Matters Lecture Series, which focuses on the practical implications of copyright law in the twenty-first century, provides education and training to the staff of the Copyright Office, and offers training to the public. The Copyright Office began this series in 2012, and the most recent Copyright Matters event, in October, focused on the intersection of copyright law and the news.