Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2022 Issue

Happy Public Domain Day!


The most important player in U. S. copyright law

January 1 is more that just New Year's Day. It is also Public Domain Day. This holiday may not be as well known, but it is more important in the book world. It is the day when a new batch of books lose their copyright protection and move into the public domain. It now means you can quote liberally, even reprint the book in its entirety, and no one can sue you. You have as much right to it as the author.


Of course, the author doesn't much care. He or she died a long time ago. Here is how it works, and it is different in America from other countries. The first U. S. copyright law was enacted in 1790. It provided protection against copying for 14 years, with the right to renew for 14 more. Since then, that time period has been revised upward several times. The most recent came in 1999 when the term of copyrights was raised from 75 to 95 years. The result is there was no Public Domain Day for 20 years. Nothing went out of copyright during that entire period. Books only started to be newly entered to the public domain again in 2019.


It was a Mickey Mouse move by Congress to extend that copyright. How many authors were cut off over 75 years after publishing and thereby lost royalties? Authors are human, in other words, they don't live forever. Nonetheless, Congress saw fit to extend it to 95 years. I guess just in case. Actually, books that are so popular as to still be selling 95 years after first publishing are generally owned by corporations, and Congress cares about them, not authors. That is why it was a Mickey Mouse act of Congress, not just in the figurative sense but the literal one. They did it to protect the Walt Disney Company's copyright on Mickey Mouse. Walt himself couldn't have cared less.


Recorded music gets even longer, a full 100 years. Maybe musicians live longer than authors? Still, I doubt that Caruso is sweating the expiration of his copyrights. I don't know when it happened, but I am quite certain Caruso is no longer alive.


Once the 20 year extension of 1999 was used up, books began returning to the public domain in 2019. Rather than becoming public 95 years from the exact day of publication, they all become public in their year on January 1. That is why one day can be proclaimed Public Domain Day. That means as of January 1, 2022, books originally published in 1926 became free for use by the public. Their copyrights expired.


What are the books that are now in the public domain? There must be thousands of them, mostly forgotten, but what are the most notable? I don't know what is the greatest book, whatever that may mean, but I am quite sure this is the best known and most read book from 1926 – Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne. Who doesn't know the Silly Old Bear? There were four Pooh books and this wasn't the first, but it is the best known and must be one of the most widely read books ever, even today. Now it's yours.


What else first appeared in 1926? This is one of the great literary masterpieces – Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. It is Lawrence's account of his time in Arabia during the First World War. Or, how about this one – The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. It's about American expatriates in Europe, bullfights, and it was Hemingway's first novel. It launched quite a career, and he will have many more books become public domain in the years ahead.


Here is the first novel of another writer you know well who will also have many more become public in the future, William Faulkner. The book is Soldier's Pay. It is about a seriously wounded aviator returning from the war. F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, went public last year, but this year it is his follow-up, All The Sad Young Men. It was a return by Fitzgerald to a collection of short stories, but it is what immediately followed Gatsby.


Here is one more author who will have many, many more turning public in the years ahead. The title is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the author Agatha Christie. It was her third Hercule Poirot mystery.


presIt should be pointed out that most countries have a different method of calculating when a copyright expires. It is not based on the year of publication. Rather, it uses the year the author died. This guarantees it can't expire while the author is living, and often that his/her descendants, likely the children and the grandchildren, also get to take full advantage of their ancestor's work. For many countries, the copyright remains in force for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. That includes most of the European Union, South America, the U.K., Australia, and Russia. In those countries, works by authors who died in 1951 just became public. In Canada, New Zealand, and most of Africa and Asia, it is life plus 50 years. So books by authors who died in 1971 just became public. In Spain, it's life plus 80 years. So what about Mickey Mouse? In the countries with life plus 70, the copyright is still good until 2037. For those with life plus 50, it expired in 2017. Walt Disney died in 1966. In America, it dates from 1928, the year of Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willy. The copyright expires in 1924, unless Disney finds another way to extend it.

Rare Book Monthly

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