Today, at last, is Public Domain Day in the United States. For the first time in decades, some American copyrights were actually allowed to expire naturally, a mere thirty-nine years later than planned. So after years of blogging, every January first, about what wasn't entering public domain and what would have entered public domain under earlier laws, I can finally blog about what is entering public domain.
Various media outlets are covering this as a strange oddity, to the point that they're trying to explain what the public domain is to a puzzled and skeptical public. But the oddity is that we've kept so much in copyright for so long. What is happening today should not be news. It is a return to normal.
So today everything that was originally published in 1923 becomes free for anyone to republish, repurpose, or reuse. If that seems drastic to you, remember that all of those copyrights were originally set to expire in 1980. After the copyright law was revised in the late seventies, those works should still have become public domain in 1999. Ninety-five years of copyright protection is much more than enough.
Other places have already compiled lists of the big hits becoming publicly available: Robert Frost's Pulitzer-winning collection New Hampshire, with its smash hit single "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," Harold Lloyd's classic short Safety, Last! (the one where he dangles off the clock), the Charleston, "Yes! We Have No Bananas," King Oliver's recording of "Dippermouth Blues" with his kid sidekick, Louis Armstrong. Hemingway's stories "Up in Michigan" and "My Old Man," become free for anyone to use today, and Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities, and Cather's A Lost Lady. Dorothy Sayers's detective Lord Peter Wimsey enters public domain as his first appearance does, but woe betide you if you try to publish a Wimsey mystery that draws on elements of his character from later, still-copyrighted appearances. 1923 was a busy year. We should have everything from 1962, or at least everything from 1943, but I'm happy to have the public-domain clock ticking again.
Perhaps more importantly, anyone is now free to rescue any obscure work from 1923 that they think deserves more attention. Want to digitize an old silent film before the last copy disintegrates? Want to republish a novel from 1923 that was totally ahead of its time? Go ahead. You don't have to track down the copyright holders to pay them. A lot of works that should have already been rescued in this way haven't, because after this long copyright holders are impossible to track down. One of the problems of making copyright terms so ungodly long is that it prevents salvage and restoration efforts, because the original copyright holders have lost track or lost interest.
We think of copyright as the right to publish, but what it really is, in practice, is the right to prevent publication. If you're making money of a novel that's in copyright, you can keep anyone else from publishing it. But copyright also means many things can't be published at all. And it frees the copyright holders, who are protected from competition, not to publish particular versions of the works they control. If Disney wanted to take the 1977 theatrical release of Star Wars out of circulation until 2073, they would have the legal right to do that.
So Vintage Books will be republishing Frost's New Hampshire this month, right on time, in an edition that recreates the woodcut illustrations from the original publication. (Those illustrations just entered public domain today, too.) No one's been able to buy a copy of New Hampshire as a stand-alone for decades. The original publisher, Henry Holt, could have brought one out any time they liked, pictures and all. But they didn't want to. They wanted to sell you Frost's complete poems, or a selection of favorites. Imagine the Beatles's rights-holders would sell you a box set, or a collection of greatest hits, but not Sergeant Pepper's or Abbey Road. If you wanted to see the actual book of poems that Frost put together, in the form he chose at that point in his career, you basically couldn't.
Starting now, readers will have a choice. You can still get the collected poems from Holt. You can get an individual collection of poems from Vintage. If Holt doesn't like that, they can reissue New Hampshire themselves. Maybe they'll have to commission some extra bells and whistles to make their book more attractive to buyers, like a new introduction or notes or copies of Frost's drafts. The choices will only increase. You can combine "Stopping by the Woods" with its original illustration as a poster if you want, and that's not necessarily a bad idea. In fact, putting Frost back into circulation in a competitive market economy might give the old boy some new life. It's probably good for him. In fact, it should have happened thirty years earlier.