Happy Public Domain Day (err…Month)!

Post by John O’Connor, Scholarly Communications Librarian

January 1, 2019 marked the first Public Domain Day celebrated in the United States in 20 years, and we at Boston College are spending the month of January celebrating this wonderful day and all the new works going into the Public Domain in 2019. So what is Public Domain Day? Well, let’s first start with what the Public Domain is.

What is the Public Domain?

The Public Domain is the idea that creative works are eventually the property of humanity as a whole, not just one person. Whenever someone creates a new work (a story, poem, sculpture, research paper, software code, etc.) they are allowed to have an absolute monopoly over the use of that work. This allows them to get a fair return on their work assuming there’s a market for it by selling bits and pieces of that monopoly. For example, when someone paints a new painting, they can sell the original painting to a collector, but they can also sell prints of that painting because they own the copyright in the image.

The ultimate goal of this is to reward authors and creators for advancing “science and the useful arts”, which is to mean any kind of art. Critical to the creation of new works and new knowledge is building upon those that have come before you.

Without being able to borrow and steal from others, we as a society cannot create new things. And we want to reward those the borrow, steal, and add their own new ideas to create something useful. But that kind of borrowing and stealing isn’t possible when someone owns (or claims to own) every other idea that came before you because they could sue you for that.

That is the beauty of the Public Domain. Eventually, the monopoly that creators have over their newly created works ends. Once that happens, the work falls into the Public Domain and anyone can take that work and use it for whatever they want without having to worry about infringing on someone else’s rights. If Copyright is the reward to individual creators, the Public Domain is the promise to the rest of society that they can eventually use the things that creators make regardless of their ability to pay for them.

The act of old works eventually becoming the property of all of humanity is a critical part of the copyright bargain. You create something new, and you get to make money off of it for a limited amount of time. After that time (which is generally long enough for it to no longer be of direct economic value), anyone is able to use your work for the good of society.

Wait, so how does the Public Domain work?

Pretty simply actually. Anything that is in the Public Domain is free for anyone in the world to take, remix, change, build upon, or re-sell directly. Most often, people take something that was old, add new elements, and re-sell that. Disney is probably best known for taking stories in the Public Domain and building upon them. Here’s a list of Disney movies and the Public Domain works they’re based on:

Disney Movie

Public Domain Work

Adventures of Huck Finn (1993)

Adventures of Huck Finn by Mark Twain (1885)

Tom and Huck (1995)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)

Aladdin (1992)

One Thousand and One [Arabian] Nights (1706)

Bug’s Life (1998)

Aesop’s Fables

Frozen (2013)

Ice Queen by Hans Christian Anderson (1845)

The Lion King (1994)

Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1603)

There are tons of other examples of public domain use by Disney: Snow White, Cinderella, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sleeping Beauty, and Tangled all are based on works in the Public Domain.

And Disney isn’t the only one. Star Trek uses stories in the Public Domain as the basic plot for dozens of episodes. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a nearly direct re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey. The motion picture Seven is based on Dante’s Inferno.

As you can see, the existence of the Public Domain has a direct influence on our modern society.

OK, OK. I get it. But what is Public Domain Day?

Depending on when something was created and when/if it was published, the amount of time that someone has a copyright over their work varies. Generally speaking, something created today is copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years. Before 1976, published works (such as books, movies, paintings, etc.) were copyrighted for 95 years from the publication date.

The way that copyright law works is the those copyrights expire not exactly 95 years from the publication date, but January 1 of the year after they would expire. For example, if a book was published on March 1, 1923, the copyright doesn’t expire on March 1, 2018 – it actually expires on January 1, 2019. Same thing for a book published on June 1, 1924 – its copyright will expire on January 1, 2020. This makes the math and record keeping easy for publishers and courts to keep up with.

That’s why we call January 1 Public Domain Day. On that day all off the work for the year 95 years prior goes into the Public Domain. On January 1, 2019, all of the works published in 1923 went into the public domain.

Uh huh. And why hasn’t the United States had a Public Domain Day in 20 years?

Well, we have the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998—also called the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the Sonny Bono Act, or (derisively) the Mickey Mouse Protection Act—to thank for that.

What that law did, among other things, was to extend the copyright terms for works published before 1976 by 20 years. Ostensibly, the reason for this was to more closely align US copyright law with European standards. However, some people note that the law was created under intense lobbying from Disney as the character Mickey Mouse was about to pass into the Public Domain (hence the nickname).

Since the terms for works were extended for 20 years, that effectively put a pause on the Public Domain in the United States that lifted on January 1, 2019.

Cool! So what’s passing into the Public Domain this year?

Anything published in 1923 is now in the Public Domain. Lifehacker has a wonderful list of some famous works of art that are passing into the Public Domain this year—including works from Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, and Pablo Picasso.

Boston College has created a display in the lobby of O’Neill Library that highlights more than two dozen books and films that are now in the Public Domain. Some examples include:

  • Bambi by Felix Salten (PT2637.A52 B313 1929)
  • The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud (BF175.5.E35 F7413 1989)
  • New Hampshire by Robert Frost (PS3511.R94 A6 1995)
  • The Prisoner by Marcel Proust (PQ2631.R63 P76 1972)

Sweet. So what about Mickey?

Well, Mickey the character and the first drawings of him from Steamboat Willie will pass into the Public Domain on January 1, 2024. But don’t get too excited. You might notice that that Mickey looks different from the modern Mickey. All of the modern versions of Mickey will still be under copyright. In addition, Disney uses Mickey as a logo and has Trademarked him. That put Mickey anyone wanting to use Mickey for their own purposes in a difficult spot since Trademark protections never expire as long as they’re used.

Mickey might never be available to the public, but we won’t know until someone tries in 2024.

That’s a bummer. Anything else I should know?

I think that’s mostly it. Get excited for 2020 when we get a whole new batch of works (published in 1924) into the Public Domain. And get out there and make use of those newly Public Domain works!