Public Domain Day 2024

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From The Center for the Study of The Public Domain:

On January 1, 2020, works from 1924 will enter the US public domain,1 where they will be free for all to use and build upon, without permission or fee. These works include George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, silent films by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and books such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young. These works were supposed to go into the public domain in 2000, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years.

Now the wait is over. How will people celebrate this trove of cultural material? The Internet Archive will add books, movies, music, and more to its online library. HathiTrust will make tens of thousands of titles from 1924 available in its digital library. Google Books will offer the full text of books from that year, instead of showing only snippet views or authorized previews. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can afford to publicly perform the music. Educators and historians can share the full cultural record. Creators can legally build on the past—reimagining the books, making them into films, adapting the songs.

Here are some of the works that will be entering the public domain in 2020.

. . . .

Books

  • Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
  • E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
  • Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not… (the first volume of his “Parade’s End” tetralogy)
  • Eugene O’Neill, Desire Under the Elms
  • Edith Wharton, Old New York (four novellas)
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (the English translation by Gregory Zilboorg)
  • A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young
  • Hugh Lofting, Doctor Dolittle’s Circus
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Ant Men
  • Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit
  • Lord Dunsany (Edward Plunkett), The King of Elfland’s Daughter

Music

  • Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin
  • Fascinating Rhythm and Oh, Lady Be Good, music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin
  • Lazy, Irving Berlin
  • Jealous Hearted Blues, Cora “Lovie” Austin (composer, pianist, bandleader) (recorded by Ma Rainey)
  • Santa Claus Blues, Charley Straight and Gus Kahn (recorded by Louis Armstrong)
  • Nobody’s Sweetheart, music Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, lyrics Gus Kahn and Ernie Erdman

. . . .

Why celebrate the public domain?

A wellspring for creativity. The goal of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so. Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution. But it also ensures that those rights last for a “limited time,” so that when they expire, works can go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations. As explained by the Supreme Court:

[Copyright] is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of special reward, and to allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited period of exclusive control has expired.” Sony v. Universal (1984).

Several of the works above were based on public domain works. Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms adapted Greek myths to a rural New England setting. Dante’s Inferno fused parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy with elements from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In 2020, anyone can use these works as raw material for their own creations, without fear of a lawsuit.

Access to our cultural heritage. The public domain also enables access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history. 1924 was a long time ago. The vast majority of works from 1924 are out of circulation. When they enter the public domain in 2020, anyone can make them available online, where we can discover, enjoy, and breathe new life into them. . . .

(Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print . . . .)

The works listed above are famous, that is why we included them. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what forgotten works you might find?

. . . .

The law that expanded the copyright term is sometimes referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” because it was supported by Disney, in an effort to prevent the short film Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse’s screen debut, from going into the public domain. (The film will now be in the public domain in 2024.) But it was not just Disney that lobbied for the extra 20 years. The Gershwin Family Trust also pushed for the extension, so that George and Ira Gershwin’s works from the 1920s and 1930s would remain under copyright.

The Gershwin Trust’s goal was not only to continue receiving royalties, but also to exert creative control. As Marc Gershwin explained:

“The monetary part is important, but if works of art are in the public domain, you can take them and do whatever you want with them. For instance, we’ve always licensed ‘Porgy and Bess’ for stage performances only with a black cast and chorus. That could be debased. Or someone could turn ‘Porgy and Bess’ into rap music.

(In response to the concern about rap music, a New York Times editorial noted, “The work of the Gershwin brothers drew on African-American musical traditions. What could be more appropriate?”) Sometimes this creative control takes the form of restrictions on new uses: the estate presided over a Broadway-friendly version of “Porgy and Bess,” encouraging the director to make controversial changes including a more upbeat ending and new dialog. Other times the estate simply exercises a veto: for example, it stopped a British clergyman from rewriting the song “Summertime” because “his lyrics were terrible.”

Link to the rest at The Center for the Study of The Public Domain

2 thoughts on “Public Domain Day 2024”

  1. But it also ensures that those rights last for a “limited time,” so that when they expire, works can go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations.

    Any author can do that with any book regardless of copyright.

  2. where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations.

    Copyright was never stopping other creators from being inspired or creating. That’s not a thing. It was stopping people from taking a specific work and adapting that work into something of their own liking, which may or may not be creative at all … and may even be contrary to what the creator intended with the work. I’m sympathetic to Disney not wanting pr0n versions of Mickey floating around.

    I do love that more stories will become available to read now; I remember looking for “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” on Kindle. I think someone pointed out that Batman is also about to enter the public domain, and I gather some indies intend to go toe to toe with D.C. Comics over Who Writes Batman Better. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but it might be entertaining to watch.

    This is a strange example of the public domain: Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms adapted Greek myths to a rural New England setting.

    Myths, folktales, etc. aren’t things you copyright, are they? Can you copyright an urban legend? It’s the closest modern analogue I can think of. At best you might set down a version of a tale, and a particular translation of that version if the thing isn’t in English. As I understand it, the version of the “Iliad” we all read is simply what Homer happened to tell on a given occasion, and it’s only because someone format-shifted the story from an oral to a written one that the version we know is “fixed.” Other versions had other details.

    Whereas, whatever ERB wrote about Tarzan was “fixed” from the start, since Tarzan was wholly his creation, not someone he heard about from a friend, who heard it from a friend. Copyright meant that you couldn’t just take Tarzan and turn him into a manic-depressive Starbucks barista who hallucinates about talking animals whenever he’s off his meds. A malicious rival couldn’t deprive ERB of a living by passing off the Starbucks Greystroke for Lord Greystroke. In light of RWA-type dust-ups, I’m glad that there’s some check on what vindictive authors can do to each other.

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