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Copyrighted works are entering the public domain again

Copyright law has kept many works from the public domain for a long time, but several copyrights are expiring for the first time in many years.

Effective January 1, all works published in the United States in 1923 will enter the public domain. This is significant news in the world of copyright, as it has been over two decades since the last round of mass copyright expiration.

Among some of the works entering the public domain are:

  • “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
  • “Yes! We have No Bananas” by Louis Prima
  • Theodore Pratt’s stage adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • The World Crisis by Winston Churchill
  • The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille
  • The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) by Marcel Duchamp
  • Our American Adventure by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • “Nebraska” by Willa Cather

Why has copyright expiration taken so long?

In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which added 20 years to the copyright term. Prior to passing the law, all works published before January 1, 1978 were protected under copyright law for 75 years, while all later works were protected for the lifetime of the creator, plus 50 years.

Many corporations had a vested interest in advocating for longer copyright protection, chief among which was Disney. Steamboat Willie, the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, premiered in 1928, and he was scheduled to enter the public domain in 2004. Once copyright extension passed, it protected Mickey Mouse through 2024.

Cultural impact of copyright expiration

Historians and researches who cover the public domain and the Internet see a potentially large cultural impact, as the last copyright expiration took place in 1998, outside of the Internet Age. Large amounts of works will continue to enter the public domain every January 1 until 2073, when all works published by authors who died 70 years prior will expire each year.

This could be especially impactful for artists who are worried their inspiration could be copyright infringement. If the work was created in 1923, there is no longer any doubt. It will be interesting to see how the release of early 20th century works each year impacts the art created today.

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