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Start of 2020 Ushers Thousands of Once-Copyrighted Works Into the Public Domain

After 95 years of exclusivity, these films, books and compositions are now free for use by everyone

Composer and pianist George Gershwin, whose 1924 composition "Rhapsody in Blue" entered the public domain on January 1, 2020 (GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

For the second year in a row, the internet has hit serious digital paydirt in the arena of cultural catch-up. As the decade changed over on January 1, thousands of once-copyrighted works from 1924 entered the public domain. Ninety-five years after their creation, these classics are finally free to use, remix and build upon without permission or payment. (See the full list here.)

Among the liberated are musical compositions like George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” films like Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. and books like E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Now, anyone—from historians to recording artists to iPhone-savvy middle schoolers—can make these works and more their own with annotations, additions and modifications. They can even profit from them, if they so choose.

Above and beyond rehashing old content, the lifting of copyright protections intends to inspire a new generation—not to dwell in the past, but to legally draw from and build upon it, explains Balfour Smith, program coordinator of Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, in a blog post. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that some of the newly released works were themselves based on predecessors in the public domain. The silent film Dante’s Inferno, for instance, blends elements from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The beginning of 2020 marks a time when “anyone can rediscover or breathe new life” into a new treasure trove of past works, Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, tells Tanzina Vega of WNYC.

That’s all worth a cheer. But this mass expiration comes tinged with a bit of bittersweet irony. Originally intended for release in 2000 after a 75-year stint under legal lock and key, works from 1924 were waylaid by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which appended two decades onto their copyright term, reported Glenn Fleishman for Smithsonian magazine last year. The timing of the act’s passage forged a bizarre gap between the release of works from 1922 and those from 1923, which entered the public domain on January 1, 2019.

Contained within the timing of the copyright term extension is something of a cosmic irony, Jenkins tells Vega. In 1998, the internet was just ramping up—giving people, for the first time, “the opportunity … to digitize and make all that work available.” But in the 21 years that followed, no deluge from decades past hit the World Wide Web.

Our generation won’t be the last affected. Every January 1 from now until 2073, 95-year-old works of art will enter the public domain. Come 2073, however, copyrights begin to expire on a 70-year timeline instead. (Copyright laws are nothing if not quirky: Thanks to the strict ownership claims of Warner/Chappell Music, even “Happy Birthday” wasn’t technically recognized in the public domain until 2016.)

Don’t dwell on the future, though. Enjoy the gift of now—after all, it’s the present. Quote from Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit. Riff on the first film version of Peter Pan. Recreate Irving Berlin’s “Lazy.”

Such widespread availability may aid conservation efforts, too. After nearly a century, many 1920s works are already lost or have deteriorated past the point of recovery. Digitizing those that survive is akin to opening a time capsule and may help ensure the classics are enjoyed for decades to come.

These oft-celebrated expirations aren’t without their skeptics: The 1998 extension was born in part out of a desire for copyright holders to retain the rights to royalties—but also, perhaps, a fear of ceding creative control. As Smith writes in his blog post, the Gershwin family was one of many that expressed hesitancy to see pieces like “Rhapsody in Blue” enter the public domain, worrying that modern artists would, intentionally or not, end up debasing the music and sullying its legacy.

But Gershwin himself saw “Rhapsody in Blue” as a “musical kaleidoscope of America,” drawing from a wide array of influences that spanned several cultural divides, writes Smith. It would be a shame if Gershwin couldn’t fully pass on his gift in the same way.

“We can’t predict what uses people are going to make of the work we make available,” Mike Furlough, executive director of the digital library HathiTrust, told Fleishman last year. “That’s what makes that so exciting.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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