New Year’s Day was a bit different this year. It brought something unseen for the past twenty years: the mass infusion of previously copyrighted works into the public domain. United States copyright law grants creators certain exclusive rights over their expressive works—reproduction, distribution, and performance rights, for example. But these rights only last for a limited period of time and, when they expire, the works enter the public domain for anyone to do with as they please. The system is structured to incentivize creation by allowing authors to reap the benefits of their creativity, while eventually allowing others to build on those earlier creative efforts.
Until 1998, copyrighted works published in 1922 or earlier entered the public domain on January 1, 1998. That same year, however, Congress amended the Copyright Act to extend protection for all then-currently protected works and all future works by 20 years. And thus the public domain went into a twenty-year dry spell. The rain arrived on January 1, 2019, when thousands of works first published in 1923 entered the public domain. Among the works in 2019 entering class are:
- Cecil DeMille’s epic film The Ten Commandments (silent version)
- Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening
- The musical composition The Charleston featured in the Broadway comedy Runnin’ Wild
- The book of poetic essays The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
- The book Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
- The short story Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf
- The novels The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
- Charlie Chaplin’s short film, The Pilgrim
- The comic novel Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley
Unless Congress acts again, this time next year, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue will be in the public domain. And with no legislative action underway that would change the current term of copyright protection, the public domain will continue growing in the years to come.