In America, copyright terms have serious staying power. Thanks to several laws involving, in part, Mickey Mouse, the U.S. government has extended copyright protections for decades past what other countries require, effectively keeping any work published after 1922 firmly out of the public domain to this day. That means you can’t legally use images and artistic works without permission from (and probably payment to) the owner of the copyright. But soon, a new batch of work is set to enter the public domain, marking the first time that has happened in decades, according to The Atlantic. That means you’ll be able to use, remix, and even sell those works without getting into legal trouble.
In most other countries, literature, art, films, music, and certain other creative works are under copyright for the life of their author plus some number of years (in many places, it’s 50 or 70 years). For instance, people in Canada and New Zealand became able to use the works of artists like Woody Guthrie without worrying about copyright infringement in 2018.
But Americans are still waiting to use works published in the 1920s. In the U.S., a 1976 law extended copyright protections on everything created between 1923 and 1977 (and beyond) to 75 years, putting work published in 1922 into the public domain in 1998. Then, a 1998 law extended those copyright terms further to 95 years after first publication, protecting anything made after 1922. So copyrighted work from 1923 on wouldn’t enter the public domain until 2019 or later.
All this has kept archival resources like the Internet Archive and Google Books from releasing digital versions of old books, kept TV shows from freely using common songs (like, until recently, “Happy Birthday”), and otherwise stifled cheap and easy access to older works of art and culture.
The time has finally come for works from 1923 to enter the public domain in the U.S. This will include books like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street and Robert Frost’s New Hampshire, which includes the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—a poem that, despite its popularity, has been strictly controlled by his estate up to this point. Other books from authors like Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, e.e. cummings, and H.G. Wells will also be released into the public domain, as will plenty of films and sheet music. Considering that It’s a Wonderful Life only became a holiday classic when it entered into the public domain due to a clerical error, plenty of other forgotten works might become classics once they are released for royalty-free use next year.
In the meantime, check out some films that are already in the public domain, like Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. And mark your calendar: Mickey Mouse could be headed to the public domain as early as 2024.
[h/t The Atlantic]