The 2019 Public Domain Night Thread

In a little over one more day, Americans will be full entitled to copy, modify or adapt any and all works from the year 1923. It’s been a long time coming.

American copyright law is complex, and the duration of copyrights was extended several times in the 20th century. (As a case in point, everything I say here doesn’t apply to sound recordings. Sound recording copyrights are on different planet from everything else, more on that below.) The upshot of this is that, for 40 years, everything from 1922 and earlier was public domain, while the duration was extended, then extended again. On January 1, 2019, the wheels will start to move again.

I wrote about this back in April, where I was met with a stunning level of cynicism from you folks about corporate copyright influence. I now have good news: Unless both houses of Congress can draft new copyright extension legislation in the next 36 hours AND get the president to sign it, 1923 is ours for the taking.

And what will we get? Well, stuff we should have had for 40 years, for one thing. A huge number of the silent films from this era are lost now; of the survivors, the most famous one is probably Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (AKA, “the movie where he hangs off the face of a clock.”) Also the Buster Keaton comedy shorts “The Balloonatic” and “The Love Nest.” In literature, standouts include H. G. Welles’ Men Like Gods and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves.

Here’s my full list of titles from the April article:

Note again that “music” refers to sheet music. I learned, literally while drafting this article, that music recording copyrights were finally streamlined a couple months ago. As part of the Music Modernization Act, the old mess of pre-1972 state-level copyrights for sound recordings has been paved over and standardized. So music recordings from 1923 WILL become public domain, but not until 2022.

Honestly, I wish I could point to some standout work and say, “This! This is ours now!” But most of you probably don’t feel like recording your own versions of foxtrots, and we aren’t going to get to talking pictures until 2022. But it’s something, and it’s something we haven’t had in a long time. Please petition your representatives to lower the duration of copyrights back down 20 years again, so I can live long enough to make copies of noirs.