Art

Thousands of Copyrighted Works Just Entered the Public Domain in 2019

When the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, Danish people broke dishes, Spanish people ate grapes, and the ball dropped in Time Square. Something invisible happened, too: Thousands of works of art entered the public domain for the first time in more than 20 years.

2019: The Year of Public Domain

Well technically, according to the Chinese Zodiac, it's the year of the pig, but it's the year of a lot of other things, too. And in 2019, every work of American art first released in 1923 has lost its copyright protection and entered the public domain.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, it means that as of New Year's Day (or Public Domain Day, to some — seriously) the work officially belongs to "the public." No individual or institution owns it, and anyone can reproduce, reuse, and remix work in the public domain however they want, without asking for permission or paying royalties.

(And royalties can be serious business—sometimes, artists pay six figures to sample a song!)

The newly accessible works are all more than a century old, but a surprising number of them are still relevant today. Robert Frost's classic "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" — it's the one that starts "Whose woods these are, I think I know" — is poised to enter the public domain, as is Winston Churchill's five-volume history of World War I, "The World Crisis," and the Charleston song. Some very whimsically named songs are entering the public domain, too, including "Oh Gee Oh Gosh Oh Golly I'm In Love" and "Horsey, Keep Your Tail Up." (We have definitely gotten better at naming songs in the past century.)

Here's a partial list of works (with more in this spreadsheet) that are officially in the public domain.

Literary Works:

  • "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes
  • "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas
  • "The Overcoat and Other Stories" by Nikolay Gogol
  • "Ivanhoe" by Walter Scott
  • "Land and Sea Tales for Boys and Girls" (among others) by Rudyard Kipling
  • "Adventures of Doctor Dolittle" by Hugh Lofting

Films:

  • "The Pilgrim," "A Woman of Paris," and many other Charlie Chaplin films
  • "Our Hospitality," directed by and starring Buster Keaton
  • "Where the North Begins," Rin Tin Tin's third movie

Music:

  • "Kansas City Stomp" by Jelly Roll Morton
  • "Weather Bird Rag" by Louis Armstrong
  • "Violin Sonata No. 1" by Béla Bartok
  • "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" by Irving Berlin
  • "Sarabande," written by Claude Debussy and orchestrated by Maurice Ravel
  • "River Side Blues" by Tommy Dorsey
  • "I Won't Say I Will, But I Won't Say I Won't" by George Gershwin
  • "Sundown Blues" by W.C. Handy
  • "Fugal Concerto, op. 40, no. 2" by Gustav Holst
  • "Jail House Blues" by Bessie Smith

This wave of public domain art is great news for a wide variety of people: teachers making photocopies (no longer are they low-key violating copyright law!), hip-hop producers looking for samples, and advertisers, to name a few. For better or for worse, we can expect to see "And miles to go before I sleep" in a Sleep Number ad any day now.

Why Didn't This Happen Sooner?

You can blame Walt Disney, more or less. Back in 1998, the U.S. copyright term was 75 years, and everyone expected works from 1923 to enter the public domain in 1999. Walt Disney, however, spearheaded lobbying for an extension. He succeeded, too. In 1998, Congress raised the copyright term to 95 years, and works from 1923 spent an extra 20 years under copyright.

Disney wanted this extension so badly, you see, because Mickey Mouse first appeared in Steamboat Willie in 1928 — and Disney wanted to spend as many years as possible dominating the Mickey Mouse merchandise market. Under pre-1998 laws, Mickey's likeness would have entered the public domain in 2004; under the new 1998 law (named after Sonny Bono, famous for his music but somewhat less famous for his work as a politician), Mickey doesn't enter the public domain until 2024.

When the clock struck midnight in 2019, works from the 1920s entered the public domain at last. The 1920s were a time of rapid social change; it was the decade of the Harlem Renaissance, prohibition, and, of course, a general "roaring." Today, in another era of flux, we may have a lot to learn from 1920s art.

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Hear more strange tales about Disney's dealings in "The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against The Underground" by Bob Levin. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice January 3, 2019

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