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Why Americans Missed Out on Public Domain Day (Again)

Aleister Crowley, Dorothy Parker, and René Magritte joined the public domain in 2018, but not in the United States

No public domain etchings by Jessie Traill available for this American teen. (iStock/jeremyiswild)
smithsonian.com

While the rest of the world celebrates free access to the creative work of people who died decades ago, Americans once again are facing a dearth of new work entering into the public domain this January 1st.

Public domain works are those where the copyright expired (or never existed)—they belong to the public and are free to anyone to read, watch, or remix into new media. For many countries, copyright on creative work expires 50 to 70 years after the creator’s death, making the first day of the new year one to celebrate a fresh batch of books, movies, art, music, and even scientific research entering the public domain.

But the United States exists in a hazy state of complicated and extensive copyright requirements that shrink what enters the public domain, with corporate ownership extending for 95 years. That's why, as Ben Richmond at Motherboard reports, this year marks the 20th year of America’s public domain drought: no older works are automatically added to the public domain. Instead, publicly owned work is restricted to anything created before 1923, government works, or work explicitly licensed as public domain by its creators.

Outside of the U.S., however, in Canada, New Zealand, and much of Africa and southern Asia, 2018 means that creative work by people who died in 1967 —50 years ago—are now part of the public domain. As Allison Meier reports over at Hyperallergic, the treasure trove for this year includes René Magritte’s surrealist paintings and Jessie Traill’s etchings. Jean Toomer’s work capturing black life in the United States, and Dorothy Parker’s sharp satire are also included among the brood, in addition to Otis Redding’s soulful ballads and Woody Guthrie’s folksy songs (which may be iconic to American identity, but are still restricted under US copyright law).

Meanwhile in Europe, Australia, Russia, and much of South America, copyright is expiring on work produced by people who died 70 years ago in 1947. Over at Public Domain Review, they've curated a "class of 2018" to mark the occasion, which includes Aleister Crowley’s occultist literature, Winston Churchill's prolific body of words (and art) and the feminist prose of Anna Wickham aka Edith Alice Mary Harper.

As for the U.S., though 2018 brings another year of stagnant public domain, hopefully, this will be the last year of the drought. Unless copyright law changes over the next 12 months, work published in 1923 will enter the public domain next year.​

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