After a twenty year hiatus, tomorrow will finally see the 95 year long copyrights of works released in 1923 expire. These 1923 films, books and songs will effectively be the first to enter the public domain in the US since 1998, and Duke University notes that it will include such classics as Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, Jacob’s Room by Viginia Woolf, and the song Charleston (based on the popular dance of the same name).
Welcoming classic works to the public domain was an annual New Year’s Day tradition. Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 directorial debut, The Kid, became public on January 1st, 1997, and was joined by the 1922 German horror classic Nosferatu a year later. But in 1998, Congress extended the length of copyright from 75 years to 95, or from 50 to 70 years after the author’s death. The result of the legislation was to effectively prevent any new works from entering the public domain.
Blame Mickey Mouse
Lawmakers argued the legislation was necessary to protect the revenues of US entertainment industry, and bring US law into line with European law — but it was really about protecting Mickey Mouse. The first Mickey Mouse cartoons were released in 1928, and the new rules extended Disney’s control of the copyright until at least 2023.
However, on January 1st 2019, the first works protected by the CTEA’s new 95 year limit will expire. These books, films and songs will now be free for anyone to copy, reproduce, present, or perform, without having to gain permission or pay royalty fees to their original rights holders. Google will be able to make full books available to read through its Google Books service, anyone will be able to upload the films to YouTube, and amateur theaters will be able to produce plays without needing to seek permission.
Duke University notes that public domain has had a huge impact on the popularity of past works. It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas classic after it entered the public domain in 1975. TV stations believed that they were free to show the film without paying royalties.
Unfortunately, copyright law is rarely that simple. In 1990, a ruling by the US Supreme Court made it so that the copyright holder of an original story can have control over works derived from it. In this case, the owner turned out to be Republic Pictures, which owned the rights to the original story that the film was based on. In 1993 Republic Pictures started sending out cease and desist letters to television stations that showed the film without its permission, and It’s a Wonderful Life effectively disappeared from the public domain.
It’s a similarly complicated story for the song Happy Birthday. After a two year legal battle, in 2015 a judge ruled that the music publisher Warner/Chappell could no longer claim copyright over the song’s commercial use, since its copyright only covered specific piano arrangements. The song’s melody is originally thought to have been composed all the way back in 1893.
Of course, these works are just the ones we know about. A significant benefit of the public domain is in protecting the films, songs, and books that would otherwise disappear from the public record because it’s not profitable enough for their rights holders to restore or republish them. After 95 years, many of these will have already disappeared. Hopefully, in 2019, the process of unearthing those that haven’t can begin.