For the first time in 20 years, the US celebrates ‘Public Domain Day’

For the first time in 20 years, the US celebrates ‘Public Domain Day’
'On White II (Auf Weiss II)', Wassily Kandinsky, 1923. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As of January 1st, a number of artworks, films, and books became copyright free in the US. Following changes in copyright laws in the 90s, 2019 had what has been dubbed the first real ‘public domain day’ in 20 years. Now, a plethora of 1923 works will be free to cite, republish, and read (as long as local laws do not prohibit the work’s use). For example, books that were under copyright restrictions may have only had a preview on sites like Google Books. As of now, those books would be available for reading and downloading in full.

So, what exactly happened in the 1990s, you ask? Well, it all centres around Mickey Mouse more or less. In 1997, classics like Charlie Chaplin’s directorial debut The Kid (1921) entered the public domain. The following year, Nosferatu, the 1922 German horror film joined The Kid. In 1998, however, US Congress pushed the 75-year copyright (the period of grace between when a work was made and when it could enter public domain) to 95 years and the 50-year copyright imposed after the death of an author to 70 years. Officially, the reason for extending the copyright period was to protect revenues for the US entertainment industry and bring US law up to date with European law. The unofficial reason was Disney’s famous mouse star. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was released in 1928. So, if Congress had not intervened, it would’ve entered public domain in 1998. With the extension, Disney kept sole control over the money-making figure until at least 2023. Congress’ extension created a 20-year hiatus for any new works hitting public domain between 1998 and 2018 allowing for the additional copyright years, hence why 2019 is notable.

Noteworthy artworks that are now up for public use include:

  • Robert Delaunay – Portrait of Tristan Tzara
  • Marcel Duchamp – The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)
  • Max Ernst – Pietà or Revolution by Night
  • M. C. Escher – Dolphins
  • George Grosz – Ecce Homo (portfolio of lithographs)
  • Wassily Kandinsky – On White II
  • Henri Matisse – Odalisque with Raised Arms and Window at Tangier
  • Pablo Picasso – The Pipes of Pan and Paulo on a Donkey
  • Man Ray – Object to Be Destroyed (destroyed 1957)
  • Paul Klee – ArchitectureTightrope Walker, and Masks

If you’re looking for a book to cozy up with after the holidays, these are some of the titles you may find a little easier – or cheaper – now:

  • Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells
  • ‘In the Orchard’ ad ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’ by Virginia Woolf
  • The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
  • ‘Hypnos’, ‘What the Moon Brings’, ‘The Lurking Fear’, and ‘Memory’ by H.P. Lovecraft
  • Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke (original German version)
  • New Hampshire by Robert Frost
  • Tulips and Chimneys by E.E. Cummings
  • Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Films include:

  • The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille (not his 1956 version, but the earlier, silent version)
  • Safety Last! and Why Worry? by Harold Lloyd
  • The Pilgrim by Charlie Chaplin
  • Our Hospitality by Buster Keaton