At Last — Some Good News About Copyrights

No, Etta James’ 1960 classic recording hasn’t entered the public domain, and the original score by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren hasn’t entered it either. Nevertheless, quite a few works will enter the public domain in 2019, and, as Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain reports, that’s very good news indeed:

For the first time in over 20 years, on January 1, 2019, published works will enter the US public domain. Works from 1923 will be free for all to use and build upon, without permission or fee. They include dramatic films such as The Ten Commandments, and comedies featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. There are literary works by Robert Frost, Aldous Huxley, and Edith Wharton, the “Charleston” song, and more. And remember, this has not happened for over 20 years. Why? Works from 1923 were set to go into the public domain in 1999, after a 75-year copyright term. But in 1998 Congress hit a two-decade pause button and extended their copyright term for 20 years, giving works published between 1923 and 1977 an expanded term of 95 years. …

Of course, 1923 was a long time ago. … Unfortunately, the fact that works from 1923 are legally available does not mean they are actually available. Many of these works are lost entirely or literally disintegrating (as with old films and recordings), evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. For the works that have survived, however, their long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate. …

Note that copyright law has a way of introducing complexities into any analysis. There are some familiar works that appear to be from 1923, but are not in fact entering the public domain in 2019 because of publication details. One is Felix Salten’s Bambi, A Life in the Woods, the basis for Disney’s famous movie. Salten first published it in Germany without a copyright notice in 1923, then republished it with a compliant copyright notice in 1926. When Disney (of all companies) claimed that Bambi was in the public domain, a court disagreed, holding that because the initial 1923 publication was in Germany, the failure to include a copyright notice did not put the book into the US public domain. The 1926 publication was valid, so the book’s copyright expires after 95 years in 2022. … Also, while the copyrights in several Jelly Roll Morton songs lapse in 2019, his famous “King Porter Stomp” was not copyrighted until 1924 (even though it was recorded in 1923), so it is not entering the public domain until 2020. …

Read the whole thing to learn more about copyright law and find a link to a list of over a thousand works that enter the public domain this year.

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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