January 1, 2019, was a big day. I mean, for one thing, our firm turned 3 years old. No more terrible twos for us! Second, and perhaps with more widespread impact, it was the first time in 20 years that published copyrighted works entered into the public domain in the United States.
We have previously discussed what the public domain is. Works from 1923 (and before) are now free to use, in whole or in part, by whoever wants to use them. Third parties can even build, change, and otherwise play with the work all without permission or payment to the copyright holder. My favorite suggestion was a “dubstep” version of the 1923 hit “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”
Now, why the 20 year gap? On October 27, 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) came into being. It was championed by Representative Sonny Bono. Can’t imagine why he’d want longer copyright protection… The law extended protection from life of the author plus 50 years to life of the author plus 70 years. Ta-da! Magically, works that were set to expire in 1999 then expired 20 years later.
Now some works from 1923 have already have entered the public domain prior to 2019 because the copyright rules used be very strict. It required owners to take certain actions in order to retain copyright protection. For example, a copyright owner had to include a copyright notice on their published goods. You know like when we say you want to put the notice on your works, such as “© 1923 Aldous Huxley.” Or they had to renew the copyright after 28 years. The 1947 film It’s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain in 1975 because its copyright was not properly renewed after the first 28-year term. Current copyright law no longer has these requirements. Whew!
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.