By Matthew J. Booth
That’s a little bit what starting this adventure in blogging feels like. It is also the ending to Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” On January 1, 2019, most copyrighted works published in 1923 went into the public domain. This includes several notable works including “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a dubstep version of “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” and Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis. The practical effect of this is that everyone can now republish worry free those works or adapt them for use in new works. A quick internet search will reveal most of the works that have now entered the public domain.
Why has it been a whopping 21 years since such a large number of works have entered into the public domain? In 1998, works published in 1922 or earlier were in the public domain. In that same year, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act that increased the duration of copyright protection for works published between 1923 and 1977 from 75 years to 95 years. The practical effect of the law was that the flow of works into the public domain completely stopped for a 21-year period.
How did the public domain get frozen in time for 21 years? One of the prime movers for the passage of the Act was Disney because the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, in the movie Steamboat Willie, occurred in 1928. Under the copyright laws in 1998, that version of Mickey Mouse would have entered into the public domain in 2004. After passage of the Act, this version of the Mouse is still protected until 2024.
A very nice source of information on copyright term and the Public Domain can be found here at Cornell University Library’s Copyright Information Center.