April 16, 2018
2019 will be a big year for works entering the public domain
by Ryan Harrington
Mickey Mouse is a powerful political figure in this country. Year after year his name appears as a write-in candidate in electoral returns. He (well, he and his crack legal team) have also successfully lobbied, and successfully altered, how copyright works in this country.
How exactly does copyright work in this country?
In a piece for Mental Floss about the flood of classic books and films poised to enter the public domain, Shaunacy Ferro provides a helpful history:
In the U.S., a 1976 law extended copyright protections on everything created between 1923 and 1977 (and beyond) to 75 years, putting work published in 1922 into the public domain in 1998. Then, a 1998 law extended those copyright terms further to 95 years after first publication, protecting anything made after 1922. So copyrighted work from 1923 on wouldn’t enter the public domain until 2019 or later.
This is a much longer period of copyright than that observed by most countries (where the formula is usually more like the life of the author + 50 years). And it has a lot to do with keeping the cash mouse that is Mickey under copyright for as long as possible.
But, the silver lining of this arrangement is, as Timothy B. Lee put it at Ars Technica: “On January 1, 2019, every book, film, and song published in 1923 will fall out of copyright protection — something that hasn’t happened in 40 years.”
And so when the clock strikes midnight, we’ll all be able to get our grubby little hands on, and even repackage and resell, material like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street, some of P.G. Wodehouse’s finest work, and, as Ferro points out, “Robert Frost’s New Hampshire, which includes the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” — a poem that, despite its popularity, has been strictly controlled by his estate up to this point.”
That is, unless congress takes action on another extension.
But Lee tells us that another extension does not seem likely. He writes:
The rise of the Internet has totally changed the political landscape on copyright issues. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is much larger than it was in 1998. Other groups, including Public Knowledge, didn’t even exist 20 years ago. Internet companies—especially Google—have become powerful opponents of expanding copyright protections.
Looking beyond 2019, you can see some other rare fruit weighing branches ever closer to the ground. For instance, The Great Gatsby will enter the public domain in 2021. And Mickey himself will have his day in 2024.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.