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1923 Passes into Public Domain

Issued: February 13 2019

On New Year’s Day 2019, hundreds of thousands of books, poems, films, paintings, photographs and musical compositions first published in 1923 finally entered into the public domain in the United States.

While most of the works passing into public domain are unknown and forgotten, the cohort does boast some heavy hitters, including Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie The Ten Commandments, Theodore Pratt’s stage play The Picture of Dorian Gray, Winston Churchill’s book The World Crisis and – not to be forgotten – the novelty song “Yes! We Have No Bananas” written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, which features lyrics including:

There’s a fruit store on our street / It’s run by a Greek / And he keeps good things to eat / But you should hear him speak!

When you ask him anything, he never answers “no” / He just “yes”es you to death, and as he takes your dough.

He tells you / “Yes, we have no bananas / We have-a no bananas today.

Passing into the public domain is, generally, not a big deal, but in this case, it was, because it had been 21 years since anything had passed into public domain in the United States.

The long drought can be blamed, at least in part, on the Walt Disney Co.

In 1998, Mickey Mouse and crew were part of a group of corporations which were loudly lobbying the US government for an extension of time for copyright protections. At that time, anything published before January 1, 1978, received copyright protection for 75 years, while everything created on or after that date received protection for the lifetime of the creator plus 50 years.

The mouse’s first appearance, in a black-and-white movie called Steamboat Willie, was in 1928; he was set to enter the public domain in 2004. But, listening to Disney and other corporate copyright owners, Congress extended the term of copyright by another 20 years to creator’s life plus 70 years. The law extended Mickey’s copyright protection to 2024, and established that no other copyrighted work enter the public domain until 2019, creating a 20-year gap between the release of works from 1922 and works from 1923.

What does release into the public domain mean? It means that consumers can more easily find books for their e-readers, often for free; that television networks can more easily broadcast movies; that artists can remix or otherwise use music; that vloggers can use those tracks on YouTube; and that all those types of content can be used for education purposes without fear of falling afoul of copyright laws.

That gap came about just as the internet was coming to prominence. Those 1922 works were released in 1998, which was before Google even existed. “We have shortchanged a generation,” Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, told Smithsonian magazine. “The 20th century is largely missing from the internet.”

Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Duke University Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, said on National Public Radio’s 1A programme that works like Frost’s poem, DeMille’s movie and others like them, including the song about bananas, “made it, they’re famous. Those works are among the 1 percent of works from 1923 that are still commercially available. What’s important about the public domain is that the other 99 percent of works that are no longer marketable, we can make those available now. We can fill in the cultural record. We can put them online, which means that people can rediscover and breathe new life into forgotten works.”

A digital library hosted by HathiTrust, a partnership of academic and research institutions offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world, has just turned on full access to over 53,000 titles from 1923, Jenkins said. “Most of those books are probably longforgotten, but now you can find them online.”

Unfortunately, though, the fact that works from 1923 are now legally available does not mean they are actually available, the centre wrote on its Public Domain Day 2019 website. “Many of these works are lost entirely or literally disintegrating (as with old films and recordings), evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. For the works that have survived, however, their long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate.”

The world will continue to rediscover the 20th century between now and 2073, including work from the Great Depression and World War II eras. And lovers of good movies, books, art and poetry are certainly looking forward to those treasures.


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