Today is a holiday that Americans haven’t celebrated in two decades. Oh, we know it’s New Year’s Day, just like every Jan. 1. But this year, the first day of the year is also Public Domain Day.
That’s the day that a batch of copyrighted works loses that protection and moves into the public domain. Novels, songs, poems, paintings, photographs and films produced in 1923 can now be reproduced, studied and adapted without fear of running afoul of protective estates or publishers.
For more than 20 years, the holiday has gone uncelebrated — thanks to Mickey Mouse.
In the late 1990s, the Walt Disney Co. faced the looming prospect of losing copyright protection for “Steamboat Willie,” the first screen appearance of the famous mouse. The company joined other copyright holders and lobbied hard for a bill extending copyright protection from 75 years to 95 years for works published prior to Jan. 1, 1978.
Congress complied. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act became law in 1998, freezing the public domain.
There was considerable irony in Disney pushing for copyright protection. After all, the company had made a lot of money using public domain stories as the basis for its animated movies. “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and many more reworked public domain stories and characters. Even “Frozen” had its origin in the public domain.
Now, 20 years later, the first batch of works protected by that extension finally enters the public domain. Poems of Willa Cather and Robert Frost; movies by Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplin; songs by Noel Coward and George Gershwin, and much more are free to all. Remake them, mash them up, or just enjoy the long-overlooked originals.
It isn’t all good. The works can be used commercially, for instance, perhaps cheapening them. But it also means that great works are more widely available. Anyone can republish books that have gone out of print, including in digital formats easily downloaded from sites like Project Gutenberg and YouTube. Scholars will have better access to the cultural zeitgeist of 1923. It was the Roaring ’20s, and the Harlem Renaissance was underway.
The images and words of authors and artists long gone can be used as inspiration by today’s artists without fear of legal entanglement — such as composer Eric Whitacre, who adapted Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” into a choral piece in 1999, unaware of the copyright extension that kept the 1923 poem protected.
Frost’s estate shut down the performance. Now Whitacre can bring it back.
While the passage of 20 years means we’ll again see a Public Domain Day every Jan. 1, it will take decades for the backlog to clear.
Copyright law is important. Creative minds deserve protection from copycats and those who would abuse their work. The Constitution itself spells out the legal authority of Congress to set up copyright protections.
But there is also good reason for such protection to be only “for limited times,” as the Constitution says. Tacking 20 additional years of protection was unnecessary and robbed the public of the benefits of works being in the public domain for too long.
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