2019: The Year the Public Domain Returns to the U.S.

A screenshot from “Safety Last!”, a 1923 film that is now in the public domain in the United States

It’s January 2019 at the time of this writing, and already the news media’s biggest headlines are about the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. In my opinion, it seems that the news for the last few years has been so laser-focused on the seemingly nonstop drama in Washington, D.C. that it has forgotten that there are other things happening in the world. For example, a really big news story slipped right under the news media’s radar when the clock ticked over to January 1st this year. For the first time in 20 years, the copyrights on American works were allowed to expire.

I have talked about copyright and the public domain here on Cat Flag before, but just to review: creative works such as books, paintings, photographs, films, music and sound recordings, video games, etc. are protected by copyright law so that people who put their time and energy into creating these works are able to recoup their expenses and make a living. This gives people an incentive to be creative, and a legal way to stop others from ripping them off by stealing (or “pirating”) their hard work. Anything that isn’t copyrighted is “public domain” and free for anyone to use as they please – things like folktales, classical literature, and historical artworks fall into this category.

For example, the legends surrounding King Arthur are all public domain.

This means that if you wanted to, say, make your own movie about King Arthur with a stylized, modern, urban flair where our legendary king is basically also Robin Hood somehow, well, that’s exactly what Guy Ritchie and Warner Bros. did. And all those original elements that they put into that movie are copyrighted.

The goal of copyright is to encourage creativity and fill the public domain with new ideas, so copyright is, by necessity, temporary. However, the length of time that works are under copyright has changed over time as copyright law has changed. The Copyright Act of 1976 laid the foundations of our modern copyright system. Previously, you had to register your copyright and renew it every few years, but now copyright protection begins automatically when your work is “fixed in a tangible medium”. It also held that works published before 1978 would automatically have their copyright terms extended to 75 years from first publication, except those that were already in the public domain. Furthermore, the law now would differentiate between works copyrighted by a single human being, whose copyrights would expire 50 years after their death, and those owned by corporations, whose copyrights would expire in 75 years.

Then in 1998, with Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act. This law extended everyone’s copyrights by an additional 20 years. Ostensibly, this law was passed to bring U.S. copyright law into harmony with the copyright laws of other countries, but the law’s many critics at the time called it the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” as the Disney corporation’s lobbyists were the ones pushing the hardest for the new law. Before the law was passed the copyrights on the first Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie (1928), would have expired in 2003, and now they won’t expire until 2023. In effect, the law placed a 20-year freeze on new works entering the public domain.

Well, the freeze is over. Any work published in 1923 entered the public domain this year. Well, except for audio recordings, which are covered under a separate law and will remain copyrighted until 2022, though the sheet music for these songs are now public domain. Feel free to dance to the Charleston, America!

This leads to the question of what, exactly, is now in the public domain thanks to this change. It turns out, quite a lot!

Here’s Cecile B. DeMille’s original film The Ten Commandments:

Here’s the Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim:


Here’s some adventure on the Oregon Trail from the western The Covered Wagon:

The first ever Broadway play by an African-American playwright, The Chip Woman’s Fortune, is also now in the public domain, so you can freely make your own stage production of it, or perhaps turn it into a novelization, or a movie!

The list of books that are now in the public domain includes Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, New Hampshire by Robert Frost, A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton, and even the first two volumes of Winston Churchill’s account of the First World War, The World Crisis. Those with an interest in cooking and historical recipes will be happy to know that Jessie Conrad’s A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House is now public domain as well. Feel free to share its recipes with all your friends!

Pigeons with Carrots

Split the roasted pigeons in halves and lay cut side down in a stone saucepan with half a claret glass of white wine, pepper and salt, with four carrots cut lengthwise, each into eight pieces then cut across.  Add a little meat juice.  Put enough water to just cover the pigeons.  Stew gently for three-quarters of an hour.  Thicken with a little flour and water and serve in the stone saucepan, or a deep dish.

Um…. moving on…

The book that I, personally, am the most excited about entering the public domain in the U.S. is The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. This is the second book featuring Christie’s famed fictional detective, Hercule Poirot. Beginning this year, the successive books in the Poirot series will begin entering the public domain, one by one. Under U.S. law, as affirmed by the courts in the case Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate that involved the copyright status of another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, characters that originate in public domain works are public domain as a result. That means you can make your own works featuring Holmes or Poirot, as long as you don’t use any elements that are specific to those books that are still under copyright.

At least, that’s the case in the United States. In the United Kingdom, Christie’s home country, all of her works will remain copyrighted until 2046. So, I guess if you want your Hercule Poirot video game to be sold across the pond, you will still have to pay royalties to Christie’s estate.

In the coming years, as more copyrights expire and more works enter the public domain, it will be very interesting to see what new and creative inspiration people will take from these works. I look forward to seeing what people come up with.

Having said that, the real test will be what happens to Mickey Mouse, who is slated to enter the public domain in 2023. Disney must have figured it won’t be able to ram another copyright extension act through Congress, so it has trademarked the character. Trademarks identify brands, logos, and other identifiers of corporations, so people can identify the source of their goods. Unlike copyrights, a trademark can theoretically last forever. Will the courts allow Disney to continue “owning” Mickey Mouse? Only time will tell.

Tick, tock, tick, tock!