As of the 1st of January 2019, thousands of original pieces of art from 1923 have entered the public domain, the first time this has happened in over 20 years.
This marks a landmark shift in copyright ownership in the United States, where there will now be an annual release of materials and art first published 95 years previously.
You can see a list of some of the highlighted pieces of art available at this link, including links to see all each of them.
This year’s release includes some classic books, songs, musicals, and silent films, including one of the most iconic images from the silver screen where Harold Lloyd dangles from a clock in Safety Last.
And thanks to the ruling, you can watch the whole (short) film here completely legally:
Why this is important
Copyright is a very challenging legal framework to understand, especially in the USA, because of how often the rules have changed over the past century (including time periods which overlap).
One of the first challenges is that it is not always clear whether something published is copyrightable at all or not, as it only applies to certain creative work. While films, poems, books, software code and sound recordings (music) are all able to be copyrighted, there are often requirements about proving originality, minimum length requirements, be in a fixed form, and proving the work is not based on existing cultural artifacts like common dance steps.
Like with most laws, having copyright is a protective mechanism. It will not prevent other people from doing what they want with your work (just like the presence of policemen does not prevent robberies and thieves are still physically able to break into houses), but it gives an artist a way to legally request them to stop or claim what is owed to them if someone does, if they choose to pursue it via a lawyer. When the copyright on a work ends, it enters the public domain and can be used by anyone.
For most of the world, a published work is copyrighted for between 50 and 70 years after the creator’s death so that their family and estate may continue to profit from it for a while. However, in the USA there have been additional laws put in place like the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. It is this act which had halted new works being released into the public domain, extending the 75-year window agreed in 1976 by another 20 years to 95 years (hence the 20 year wait for these 1923 works to be included).
That rule was often referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” in order to prevent Disney’s first appearance of Mickey Mouse going into the public domain (which is now scheduled to happen in 2024). You can actually watch that full animation of “Steamboat Willie” legally here.
If you want more details on the complications of the copyright laws, the Atlantic wrote an excellent article about it, which you can find here.
Republishing public domain work
What makes this so interesting for artists and people in the creative industries is that once a piece of art enters the public domain, anyone can use it in any way they want, personally or commercially.
Let’s talk about using the work in their original format, either free for use (like on this website) or by republishing it for profit.
I could, for example, start showing some of the era’s great silent films and charge people entry without having to pay any royalties to the original stars or directors.
Or I could republish Robert Frost’s poems from New Hamshire, which previously had resulted in a legal battle to prevent other people using passages from his poems in their work.
But now, I am able to share with you the full passage of 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.
I could even copy all of the text from his poems into an eBook, put it up on Amazon and pocket all the profits.
But where it gets more interesting is in how people can now interpret this work freely.
Reinterpreting public domain works
Work in the public domain can be edited, remixed, mashed up and reinterpreted by any other artist.
This means that I could take scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim and mix it into my own videos. Or have it playing in the background on a TV in a play while something else is performed on stage. Or even use the characters, their dialogue, and likenesses and have them perform other new actions.
All of this is now possible without potential legal ramifications.
And this is where the true beauty of the public domain exists.
Real artists have always stolen from others, remixed ideas with their own and interpreted them in new ways.
With this work now being freely available, it will give the next generation of artists a wealth of new ideas to build on and grow from.
And each year, there will be more and more classic work added which can be used as a foundation.
In my view, this can only lead to new artwork, often in ways that the original performer or artist would never have dreamed of.
And that is a great thing.
If you are excited by this news or want to share the silent films now available here, then please share this article with someone who will like it using the sharing links.
Other films now available in the public domain
The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille
The Pilgrim by Charles Chaplin
“Our Hospitality” starring Buster Keaton and Joe Roberts
Scaramouche by Rex Ingram