Happy Public Domain Day! As of today, works from 1926 have entered the public domain—among them the first Winnie the Pooh book, the first Hercule Poirot book, and the first novel by Ernest Hemingway! This year’s Public Domain Day is special because for the first time literally ever, sound recordings are entering the public domain. You can read more about that and what else is entering PD over on the Duke CSPD.
This year, in celebration of Public Domain Day, I’m reviewing the Public Domain Review. PDR is an online journal which publishes essays concerning art and artifacts in the public domain. They also curate collections of artwork, photographs, and books, some of which they sell prints of. At the start of 2021 they celebrated their tenth anniversary, so they’ve got an extensive backlog—294 essays and 990 collection posts, by their count. Throughout all of 2021, I read every essay they published and perused every collection they showcased, in order to write this review. So I’m going to talk about why Public Domain Review is great, and then recommend some of my favorite posts from the past year.
Firstly, Public Domain Review is great just for being what it is. The public domain is vast. It expands infinitely pastwards. This is exciting, but where do you start? Say, for example, you’re an ES-EN translator, and you want to cut your teeth on a public domain work that hasn’t been translated before. You know plenty of old Spanish books, but they’re the ones that everyone knows, they’re the ones that have already been translated. And you may be familiar with more recent untranslated works, but these are under copyright. (This is why, vast as the public domain is, it is still not vast enough—the stuff that is most recent, most relevant, most likely to be known, is the stuff that is least accessible.)
We made it! At long fucking last, we have made it out the other end, and for the first time in 50 years (with the exception of just two years, 1997 and 1998), works are entering the public domain for the US and almost every other country on Earth. As is tradition on this blog (as of a year ago), every Public Domain Day (January 1st) I write a post related to my love for the public domain, and release one of my own works to the public domain. This year, I’m writing about the first English translation of And So Ad Infinitum, and releasing Tallahassee Ca. 2045 to the public domain! Jump down to the bottom of this post if you just want to read my play, or stick around if you want to hear about insects and bad poetry!
(And if you’re unclear on why today is so special and what the heck the public domain is, you can check out my post from last year.)
Ze života hmyzu (“From Insect Life”) is a play in three acts, written by Karel Čapek in 1920. As such, the original Czech has been in the public domain for more than half a century, and can be read online here. Obscure as it is in the anglophonic world, the play has seen many adaptations and productions, from a 1996 Finnish opera to a 2018 Czech film titled Hmyz (“Insect” in English). It’s been translated into English a few times over the past century, but the earliest translation was done by Paul Selver in 1923—which means it has just entered the Public Domain as of this very day!Read More »
EDIT: A previous version of this post had some slightly bad math. Basically, I said nothing had entered public domain for 50 years. That’s not quite right. In 1997 and 1998, works published in 1921 and 1922 entered public domain, respectively. Before that, the last time works entered public domain was 1977, when the copyright for works published in 1920 expired. Still, I think I’m right to call it a “half-century of starvation.” In over 50 years, we only ate twice.
Today is Public Domain Day. That effectively means nothing in the US, where for the past 49 years (basically, see above), no published works have entered the public domain. However, next year, finally, finally, this half-century of starvation will be over.
A work that is in a country’s public domain is a work that anyone can modify, sell, or incorporate into a new work, with no permission needed from anyone. There is no copyright holder for works in the public domain. Originally, US copyright law stated that a work—like a book, a painting, a piece of software, a song, etc.—had to be registered for copyright, after which point the right to copy it would rest solely with the author, for 14 years. The author could renew it for another 14 years after that, if they wanted, and then it would enter the public domain. In 1830, this law was modified so that terms were 28 years, again with the option for renewal.
A century and more later, in 1976, copyright term was dramatically increased to the life of the author plus 50 years. Additionally, the 1976 act set a term of 75 years for any work of unknown origin, or any “work for hire”—a term which would be applied to new works, and works published before 1978. A work for hire would be like a photo created by an employee as part of their job—or, it could be a movie created by a group of people (most movies are works for hire), who all sign a contract to designate the movie as a work for hire. As well, this dumpster fire piece of legislation extended the maximum copyright term of works created before 1976 from 56 years to 75 years.
This is a lot to take in, so let me break it down. Suppose I write a book in 1930, and I’m 30 years old, and I publish it that same year. I would hold the copyright through 1958, at which point I would renew it. I’m still alive after all, might as well make sure people are buying it from me and not anyone else. Then I would hold the copyright term through 1986, and it would expire on January 1st 1987. Now in 1976, I hear about this new copyright act, which allows authors to retain control of their works for as long as they live—and then grants their estates control of the work for 50 years after their death. Well, that doesn’t seem fair to me—I’ll still be alive (possibly) when my copyright expires in 1986, and I still want that money. Good news—the 1976 Copyright Act grants my work a copyright term of 75 years, meaning it will expire in 2006—when I’m 106 (or probably dead.) Hooray! I suppose this is a good scenario, but here’s what could also happen:
Suppose I write a song when I’m 30 in the year 1930, publish the song, and die instantly. Well, my estate would then get to reap the benefits of that song for 75 years. Or, maybe I don’t have an estate—maybe no rightful heir can be found, in which case, this song is stuck in limbo, with absolutely no one benefitting from it, for the better part of a century.
Suppose I write a song in 1920 and it doesn’t matter how old I am. The song remains in the public domain until January 1st 1977, the year before 1976 act goes into effect. It would be among the last batch of published works to enter the public domain, before the 50-year drought that we’re finally reaching the end of now (with the exception of 1997 and ’98.)
But whatever. That’s just some weird bit of business to try and bridge the gap between old copyright law and new copyright law. Let’s see how this would work for an artist working in 1980.
Suppose I make a movie as a work for hire in 1980. A corporation would probably be the copyright holder, and they would hold the rights to the movie for the next 75 years—or, if for some reason they waited a long time to publish it, 120 years. The 1976 act granted copyright for 120 years after creation, or 75 years after publication—whichever comes first. Potentially, a company could wait 119 years to release a movie, and then have it enter public domain the next year. Weird. Anyway, here’s how this works for an individual author:
Suppose I draw a self-portrait in 1980 and die instantly. (I think I would have to publish it too, but I’m not sure. I’ll address how unpublished works are handled in a moment.) My estate will then hold the copyright through 2030.
So this is really bad and I’ll talk about that in a moment, but hold onto your butts for right now because in 1998, the term of copyright was increased to the author’s life plus 70 years, and 95 years for works published before 1978. The term for works for hire was also increased to 95 years, or 120 years after creation (at least they didn’t extend that, I guess.)Read More »