The problem with copyright law – particularly in the US – is that people keep wanting to profit off of that which they did not create.
This is why we have things like the Berne convention, why deep-pocketed media companies bought extensions to the US copyright term no fewer than 3 times in the past fifty years, and why the US uses trade deals to pressure other countries into extending copyright terms to death plus 70 years.
This has left some of us despairing at the idea that no work will ever enter the public domain in the US ever again, but 1 January 2019 might be the turning point. The Atlantic notes that a cornucopia of works will be entering the public domain in the US in January.
For the first time in two decades, copyrights will actually expire in the US.
The Great American Novel enters the public domain on January 1, 2019—quite literally. Not the concept, but the book by William Carlos Williams. It will be joined by hundreds of thousands of other books, musical scores, and films first published in the United States during 1923. It’s the first time since 1998 for a mass shift to the public domain of material protected under copyright. It’s also the beginning of a new annual tradition: For several decades from 2019 onward, each New Year’s Day will unleash a full year’s worth of works published 95 years earlier.
This coming January, Charlie Chaplin’s film The Pilgrim and Cecil B. DeMille’s The 10 Commandments will slip the shackles of ownership, allowing any individual or company to release them freely, mash them up with other work, or sell them with no restriction. This will be true also for some compositions by Bela Bartok, Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay, Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis, Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Pigeons, e.e. cummings’s Tulips and Chimneys, Noël Coward’s London Calling! musical, Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front, many stories by P.G. Wodehouse, and hosts upon hosts of forgotten works, according to research by the Duke University School of Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain.
Other works entering the public domain include:
- The Vanishing American in Ladies’ Home Journal, by Zane Grey
One of the first literary critiques of the treatment of Native Americans; harsher than the later novel and silent film.
- A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House, by Jessie Conrad
A peek into the life of author Joseph Conrad via his wife’s recipe collection.
- Our American Adventure, by Arthur Conan Doyle
The creator of Sherlock Holmes recounts his popular (and controversial) lecture tour in support of Modern Spiritualism.
- The Chip Woman’s Fortune, by Willis Richardson
The first drama by an African-American author produced on Broadway; a one-act story of a family in financial straits.
- Nebraska in The Nation, by Willa Cather
She laments the cultural and economic homogenization in her beloved state.
- The Real Story of a Bootlegger, by Anonymous
The purportedly honest account of life as a criminal under the 18th Amendment: “Prohibition made me a millionaire.”