Celebrating New Works Entering the Public Domain in the United States

On January 1, 2019, the United States saw a mass number of new published works enter the public domain for the first time in twenty years.  After the enactment of the Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended copyright term for 20 years, a moratorium was placed on most new works entering the public domain.  Although works published in 1923 were originally scheduled to enter the public domain in 1999, the Copyright Term Extension Act gave works published between 1923 and 1977 and expanded term of 95 years.  (Note: determining the term of copyright can be incredibly complex; this chart is helpful in determining the potential public domain status of a work.)

A rich, robust public domain provides critical building blocks for the creation of new works because authors can use and reuse existing material without first seeking permission.  Examples of culturally prominent works that relied on existing works abound, from this list of 50 Disney movies based on the public domain to this paper, “Nothing New Under the Sun” (covering everything from classical music and modern jazz to literature to the stage and movies to visual arts).  While an author’s talent and work certainly contribute to great new works, such creations are not created in a vacuum; these examples of new works building on old works demonstrate the importance of the public domain.

In celebration of Public Domain Day, cultural heritage institutions are digitizing and making available a number of works and collections that are entering the public domain. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is gathering information about and publicizing such resources that are available in ARL member institutions. Below are just a few examples:

The Ohio State University Libraries, for example, working with the School of Music, are highlighting musical compositions entering the public domain.  The digital scores have been made available and new recordings will be posted.

The University of Oregon has created a Public Domain Day exhibit highlighting key works entering the public domain from the libraries’ collection in the categories of movies, books and music.

MIT Libraries is celebrating the public domain by digitizing 100 books from its collection, such as J.M. Barrie’s play A Kiss for Cinderella.

The University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign Libraries is featuring 1923 works of Helen Louis Thorndyke.

Significantly, HathiTrust Digital Library has made more than 53,000 works from 1923 available online.

Celebrating the public domain can give new life to old works and lead to new creations. Enjoy the mass numbers of newly available digitized works from 1923!