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This year we have a real “public domain day” in the United States. On January 1, a number of films, books, songs, and artistic works once protected by US copyright, and all from the year 1923, will suddenly be in the public domain. So starting today (January 1) anyone can freely read, cite, or republish. And that includes Marcel Duchamp’s original “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” (1915–23), which is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Huzzah!
What does this all mean? It means you can do as you please with these works (as long as your local laws don’t restrict that), so Google Books will now offer the full text of books from that year, instead of showing only snippet views or authorized previews — to use one of the most commonly used examples.
Those books include Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Marcel Proust’s The Prisoner (La Prisonnière, vol. 5 of In Search of Lost Time), William Carlos Williams’s The Great American Novel, H. G. Wells’s Men Like Gods, or any poem from Robert Frost’s Pulitzer Prize-winning compendium New Hampshire.
In terms of cinema, movie theaters can now screen Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, or Rin Tin Tin’s Where the North Begins. That also means theater companies can perform songs from Noël Coward’s London Calling! or George Gershwin’s Stop Flirting without cost. The Chip Woman’s Fortune, the first drama by an African-American author produced on Broadway also enters the public domain today.
Some other notable art works that are included in the class of 2019?
- Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke (original German version)
- Tulips and Chimneys by E.E. Cummings
- Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley
- A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
- Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence.
- The White Rose directed by D.W. Griffith
- Robert Delaunay, “Portrait of Tristan Tzara”
- Max Ernst, “Pietà or Revolution by Night”
- M. C. Escher, “Dolphins”
- George Grosz, Ecce Homo portfolio of lithographs
- Wassily Kandinsky, “On White II”
- Henri Matisse, “Odalisque with Raised Arms and Window at Tangier”
- Pablo Picasso, “The Pipes of Pan and Paulo on a Donkey”
And how did the US copyright laws become so strange? Blame Mickey Mouse. As The Verge explains (and we have elsewhere):
Welcoming classic works to the public domain was an annual New Year’s Day tradition. Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 directorial debut, The Kid, became public on January 1st, 1997, and was joined by the 1922 German horror classic Nosferatu a year later. But in 1998, Congress extended the length of copyright from 75 years to 95, or from 50 to 70 years after the author’s death. The result of the legislation was to effectively prevent any new works from entering the public domain.
Lawmakers argued the legislation was necessary to protect the revenues of US entertainment industry, and bring US law into line with European law — but it was really about protecting Mickey Mouse. The first Mickey Mouse cartoons were released in 1928, and the new rules extended Disney’s control of the copyright until at least 2023.
However, on January 1st 2019, the first works protected by the CTEA’s new 95 year limit will expire.
Btw, if you think bad things happen when works that enter the Public Domain, you should read this blog post by Theodora Middleton.