When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, movies, songs, and books created in the United States in 1923—even beloved cartoons such as Felix the Cat—will be eligible for anyone to adapt, repurpose, or distribute as they please.
A 20-year freeze on copyright expirations has prevented a cache of 1923 works from entering the public domain, including Paramount Pictures’ The Ten Commandments, Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, and novels by Aldous Huxley.
Such a massive release of iconic works is unprecedented, experts say—especially in the digital age, as the last big dump predated Google.
“There is certainly great value in effectively restarting the public domain, but the mistake was having extended the term of protection for already created works in the first place,” Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, told Motherboard.
For this we can thank a 1998 rule known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, famously lobbied for by the Walt Disney Company as a means to extend copyright protections. It was believed that Disney hoped to lengthen the copyright of the 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie, which marked the debut of a certain Mr. Mouse.
Named for Congressman Bono who who’d sponsored similar legislation in the past, and pejoratively dubbed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, the new rules modified an existing law, hitting the brakes on copyright terms for already protected works.
The Act lengthened copyrights of corporate “works made for hire” to 95 years (from 75 years) from their first publication, or 120 years from their creation—thus delaying Mickey Mouse’s earliest entrance into the public domain until 2024; and it also granted copyright coverage to works published on or after January 1, 1978, to “life of the author plus 70 years.”
The terms for works published in 1923 were retroactively amended, and have remained copyrighted for 95 years.
Compared to Canada, Japan, and New Zealand, America’s copyright laws are in ways more limited, and the decision to gatekeep entire eras of history has been characterized as enormously harmful to society, Motherboard has previously reported.
The end of the “dark ages” of copyright terms could usher in a Renaissance of creativity.
“Stuff from our distant past reappears when copyright goes away,” Christopher Sprigman, a law professor at New York University, told Motherboard.
“[Disney] had things like early Mickey Mouse cartoons that they may ideally want to stay in copyright forever. But that isn't good for creativity,” Sprigman added.
In 2013, Paul Heald, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conducted a survey of books for sale on Amazon. He found that more books were for sale from the 1880s than the 1990s.
When most works enter the public domain, the public collectively owns them. Such freedom let screenwriters adapt Jane Austen’s Emma into the movie Clueless; allowed Disney to rework the grisly Brothers Grimm stories into G-rated fairy tales; and gave us dozens of horror films based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Public domain was partly responsible for the internet you’re using, and permits Wikipedia editors to use photos of famous people on their Wikipages. It’s how books become translated into multiple languages, and how researchers can share their scientific findings.
“The public domain of course is the default for creativity and innovation,” Jessica Silbey, co-director of Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity, told Motherboard.
“Most people create and invent without expectation of exclusivity that IP law provides,” Silbey added. “Before there was IP, and outside of formal IP systems, there is and was plenty of creativity and innovation. “
Yet copyright rules are complex, and exceptions exist. The terms for thousands of works published between 1923 and 1963 weren’t renewed as according to the law, and consequently lapsed into public domain. Sometimes authors will intentionally dedicate works to the public domain. Other times, a collection of works may be protected by copyright, even though the individual works themselves are not.
What’s certain is that works spanning the Great Depression, the Fifties, and the Computer Age will finally be released yearly over the coming decades—opening a floodgate of free and public knowledge, and perhaps kickstarting an exciting revolution of creative ingenuity.
“Celebrating the return of a yearly expansion of the public domain is the appropriate response,” Silbey said.