Start of 2020 Ushers Thousands of Once-Copyrighted Works Into the Public Domain

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From The Smithsonian Magazine

For the second year in a row, the internet has hit serious digital paydirt in the arena of cultural catch-up. As the decade changed over on January 1, thousands of once-copyrighted works from 1924 entered the public domain. Ninety-five years after their creation, these classics are finally free to use, remix and build upon without permission or payment. 

Among the liberated are musical compositions like George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” films like Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. and books like E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Now, anyone—from historians to recording artists to iPhone-savvy middle schoolers—can make these works and more their own with annotations, additions and modifications. They can even profit from them, if they so choose.

Above and beyond rehashing old content, the lifting of copyright protections intends to inspire a new generation—not to dwell in the past, but to legally draw from and build upon it, explains Balfour Smith, program coordinator of Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain . . . .

. . . .

The beginning of 2020 marks a time when “anyone can rediscover or breathe new life” into a new treasure trove of past works, Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, tells Tanzina Vega of WNYC.

That’s all worth a cheer. But this mass expiration comes tinged with a bit of bittersweet irony. Originally intended for release in 2000 after a 75-year stint under legal lock and key, works from 1924 were waylaid by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which appended two decades onto their copyright term, reported Glenn Fleishman for Smithsonian magazine last year. The timing of the act’s passage forged a bizarre gap between the release of works from 1922 and those from 1923, which entered the public domain on January 1, 2019.

Contained within the timing of the copyright term extension is something of a cosmic irony, Jenkins tells Vega. In 1998, the internet was just ramping up—giving people, for the first time, “the opportunity … to digitize and make all that work available.” But in the 21 years that followed, no deluge from decades past hit the World Wide Web.

Our generation won’t be the last affected. Every January 1 from now until 2073, 95-year-old works of art will enter the public domain. Come 2073, however, copyrights begin to expire on a 70-year timeline instead. (Copyright laws are nothing if not quirky: Thanks to the strict ownership claims of Warner/Chappell Music, even “Happy Birthday” wasn’t technically recognized in the public domain until 2016.)

. . . .

These oft-celebrated expirations aren’t without their skeptics: The 1998 extension was born in part out of a desire for copyright holders to retain the rights to royalties—but also, perhaps, a fear of ceding creative control. As Smith writes in his blog post, the Gershwin family was one of many that expressed hesitancy to see pieces like “Rhapsody in Blue” enter the public domain, worrying that modern artists would, intentionally or not, end up debasing the music and sullying its legacy.

But Gershwin himself saw “Rhapsody in Blue” as a “musical kaleidoscope of America,” drawing from a wide array of influences that spanned several cultural divides, writes Smith. It would be a shame if Gershwin couldn’t fully pass on his gift in the same way.

“We can’t predict what uses people are going to make of the work we make available,” Mike Furlough, executive director of the digital library HathiTrust, told Fleishman last year. “That’s what makes that so exciting.”

Link to the rest at The Smithsonian Magazine

11 thoughts on “Start of 2020 Ushers Thousands of Once-Copyrighted Works Into the Public Domain”

  1. I am sick of people re-using old characters and changing them – rather than figuring out how to create their own original ones.

    They desecrate the old, and have no creativity of their own.

    I am not looking forward to the new mishmashes.

    Don’t bother telling me I’m wrong. I’m old enough to be a curmudgeon, and stealing is still stealing.

    • Yeah. That Bill Shakespeare fellow is the worst, re-using old stories and plays and myths written by other people. Didn’t always wait 95 years, either.

      • Stories and myths have been rehashed for thousands of years. One doesn’t have to use the exact same characters created by another person to do that. Nothing stops anyone from accessing and using the same myths. This has always been available to all regardless of copyright.

        I am free to write a thriller about a British spy working for MI6 who saves the world. We might even say that idea is part of out cultural legacy. But I can access, use, and honor that cultural legacy without naming the hero James Bond.

      • He worked with stereotypes that were classic or common.

        He didn’t steal a beloved character like Sherlock Holmes and completely destroy the character, but keep the name and a few mannerisms.

  2. @ABEhrhardt:
    Actually that’s not true in the case of Romeo and Juliet, as Shakespeare directly took the story from an Italian poet and use the exact same names for his characters from English translation of a work written by a man called Bandello.
    See here: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/romeo-and-juliet-not-shakespearean-tale-after-all-003155
    As for destroying a beloved character, I wonder what Bandello would’ve thought of Shakespeare’s play, but it’s the Shakespeare play that is the most well-known version of the story not any other.

    • but it’s the Shakespeare play that is the most well-known version of the story not any other.

      A story that has been with us forever, cast in all kinds of ways. Boy meets girl, and their families don’t get along.

  3. Here’s a radical question: Do copyrights benefit authors? Copyrights clearly benefit publishers, but I’m not sure they benefit authors nearly as much or at all.

    In traditional publishing, I understand that most books don’t earn out their advance. Effectively, most traditionally published authors are paid a lump sum in the form of an advance and never see any income that is dependent on continuing sales. Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to several traditionally published authors who live off their writing and they have told me that royalties don’t amount to much of their income. They make their money from lump sum payments: advances, sales of foreign rights, and other media rights such as screen rights. If that is widespread, for most authors, copyrights do them no good until they join the lucky few who do earn out, and even then, it’s not clear to me that they wouldn’t do better by letting the market fill with knockoffs, then let knockoff popularity drive publishers to compete for their next book with larger advances.

    It’s harder to measure for independent authors, but the same model may apply. Make money on the rush for a fresh book, then not worry about direct revenue from the long tail. Instead, let cheap knockoffs drive popularity that will increase the burst of sales from the next book. I’ve heard people say in this forum that piracy drives sales more than it drains them.

    Just a contrarian thought.

    • then let knockoff popularity drive publishers to compete for their next book with larger advances.

      Without copyright, why would publishers compete for anything at all? Why waste money on an advance? They just print and sell whatever they want. Alternatively, they could wait for someone else to publish, then take the book, put their name on it, and sell it themselves.

      Without copyright, Amazon could then kick all the published works off their site and sell the book themselves.

  4. There are several dynamics that you miss.

    First, publishers need to keep writers writing because producing product is hard, expensive, and risky. As a business proposition, writing books sucks unless you happen to get some pleasure doing it. For publishers, who are business folk, not artists, it’s much better to keep authors in some kind of sweet spot where good writers are willing to sell to publishers, but the writing doesn’t cost so much that publishing profits shrink below the point where good business lunches become impossible.

    Next, it takes time to produce a book after it is written, a year or more for most publishers today. If a publisher can keep the contents of a book secret until they release the book, they have several months to dominate the market while the competition scrambles to produce knockoffs. Less time is needed for digital, but the gap is still there. Without copyright, I expect digital book encryption would not be as lame as it is now. You might begin to see blockchain publishing, which would slow the knockoff process.

    Look at software. In software, copyrights and, in many cases patents, are largely irrelevant. Getting around copyrights, trademarks, and patents is covered in Practical Software Dev 101. Software shops control information on upcoming releases carefully in order to simultaneously accelerate initial sales and delay the knockoffs. Just enough information to titillate buyers, not enough for competitors to copy the features. It’s an art that gives the originators several months to capture the market.

    The same would apply in book publishing. In book publishing, the advantages look to me to be greater because books are not “sticky,” that is, books are usually rapidly replaced by new books. Only technical manuals are sold (deceptively) as “the last flub-waffle you will ever need.” Software is designed to be expensive and difficult to replace because most revenue comes from recurring license fees, not purchase fees. That accounts for some of the burstiness of book sales compared to software– typically readers are ready to read the next book when they finish a book, not continue reading the old book over and over. (Well, I used to do that when I couldn’t buy or borrow books fast enough, but that’s another story.)

    As for Amazon, I doubt that they would begin mass copying if copyrights disappeared– their business model is to take a percentage for distributing products, not producing stuff themselves. They use publishers efforts to popularize books in order to maintain the stream of products to take a percentage from. If they quit distributing publishers products, they would have to promote the products themselves, which I doubt they want to do. Their model is to let the publishers invest in the mistakes.

    • As for Amazon, I doubt that they would begin mass copying if copyrights disappeared– their business model is to take a percentage for distributing products, not producing stuff themselves.

      Copying a book is not production. Anyone could set up a site and offer copies.

      I agree it takes time for publishers to set up and produce a book. If anyone can then take the other guy’s product and sell it as their own, then the first guy’s potential return falls. His costs don’t.

      In the days of print dominance, a great deal of publishing dealt with printing, binding, warehousing, wholesale, returns, etc. Physical stuff was being moved around the world. That would give the first producer an edge.

      But, today, a competitor can have his own version of a book out the same day the first publisher debuts his.They can then use the efforts of the publisher and Amazon “to popularize books in order to maintain the stream of products to take a percentage from.”

      Authors may think eliminating copyright is a good idea, but I don’t see where investors make a profit.

      And independent authors? We wouldn’t even know who the original author is. How would the first guy demonstrate it? Why would anyone look for his next book? They don’t even know he wrote the first one. Anyone could put their name on the book and sell it.

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