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The Public Domain: A New Era of Public Creativity

As many of us were quietly (or perhaps loudly) ringing in the New Year on January 1st, an unprecedented plethora of creative works (films, music, books and more) fell into the public domain for the first time in 20 years. The amount of works that had fallen into the public domain is so substantial, some referred to January 1st as “Public Domain Day 2019”.

What is the public domain? According to Wikipedia, the public domain consists of all creative works to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. Those rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may be inapplicable. In other words, these works are free to use, duplicate, reuse, re-purpose, own and more.

“The fact that the music itself is public domain leaves a lot of doors open in the way of creativity.”

The public domain is complicated and one cannot simply assume that just because something is “old” it is in the public domain. There are exceptions. Shakespeare, the music of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and a lot of early silent films are public domain. However, certain recordings or reproductions may not be. For instance, Beethoven’s Requiem in D minor — the composition — is in the public domain, but the certain recording and arrangement you may be listening to likely isn’t. That said, the fact that the music itself is public domain leaves a lot of doors open in the way of creativity. One can record themselves playing the piece or do their own arrangement based on the music and be totally fine. This happens all the time.

Where people often fall into mistakes is in thinking that just because a piece of art was made before a certain date, it is public domain. That is not true at all and we have the beloved Mickey Mouse to thank for that.

The reason January 1st was so unprecedented was because the public domain has been frozen in time for 20 years. In 1998, Disney, and a handful of other companies and corporations, lobbied the US Congress to add 20 years to the typical copyright term. This became known as The Mickey Mouse Protection Act (a way for Walt Disney to prevent Mickey’s first starring role in Steamboat Willy from falling into the public domain).

Originally, with the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years. The 1998 Mickey Mouse Protection Act froze the date for public domain in the United States. Under this act, works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still under copyright in 1998 would not enter the public domain until January 1st, 2019 or later (Mickey Mouse didn’t first appear until 1928 and so won’t appear in the public domain until 2024).

With January 1st having come and gone, everything that was created in 1923 has entered the public domain and we can expect more with every year that passes.

Why does this open the doors for creativity? As of January 1st, anyone can freely republish (perhaps with their own illustrations?) Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links or any poem from Robert Frost’s New Hampshire. Movie theaters can screen Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (film editors can make use of the footage in their own way), Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim or some films by Buster Keaton. Theater companies can perform songs from George Gershwin’s Stop Flirting without paying a cent to anyone. All of this along with … 50,000 other titles from 1923 are now available.

To all you artists, self-publishers, filmmakers, music-makers and more — the playground of creativity just got a whole lot bigger.

- Nick

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