You might not have realized, but at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, a fantastic thing happened!
No, it wasn’t just the ending of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 — at the stroke of midnight, a whole wave of Intellectual Property (IP) entered the Public Domain!
“Winnie the Pooh”, Franz Kafka’s The Castle, poetry by Dorothy Parker and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway have now joined Sherlock Holmes, the works of William Shakespeare, Cthulhu, and other classics in the Public Domain.
For libraries and creators, the Public Domain allows us to share information, art and science while making it possible for intellectual property to freely enter the artistic and cultural sphere for further exploration and variation.
At the Tyrrell County Public Library, this allows for our organization to digitize yearbooks and local history, broaden our virtual programming offerings and fulfill digital interlibrary loan requests.
What exactly is the Public Domain?
It is all creative, academic and scientific work with no exclusive intellectual property rights or copyright owned by a single creator, multiple creators or organization. A work enters this status when a property right/copyright expires, has been forfeited, expressly waived or may be inapplicable.
With this in mind, how long does it actually take for something to enter the Public Domain? Currently, copyright expiration lasts the author’s lifetime plus 70 years, or 95 years from the original publication if owned by a company. It can also expire 120 years after the original publication, whichever comes first.
For example the character Mickey Mouse will not enter the Public Domain until Jan. 1, 2024.
How did this complicated system first come about? In the American legal system, copyright and Public Domain found their roots in English law under Queen Anne and the 1710 Parliament. The law she passed intended to give exclusive intellectual property rights to a creator for a total of 28 years (14 years after initial publication and one renewal of another 14 years by the author); after that, it was in the Public Domain.
When the newly established United States of America developed the Constitution, this law was incorporated in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8:
“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;”
Once the Constitution was adopted, an act was passed in 1790 that outlined the term of expiration which followed the precedent set by the law from Queen Anne (28 years total). Between 1790 and 1910, the law changed only twice. In 1909, it changed to broaden the scope of categories protected to include all works of authorship, and the copyright lasted for 28 years with an additional 28-year renewal (a total of 56 years of protection).
This law did not change again until 1976, when the Disney Corporation and others lobbied Congress to change the law. Under the law at the time, Mickey Mouse would have entered Public Domain in 1984. The new law changed the copyright expiration to 50 years plus the life of the author or 75 years after publication if a corporation owns it.
In 1998, with Mickey Mouse set to expire in 2003, Disney pushed Congress to revise the law to the current restrictions we see today.
The Public Domain is a fantastic resource for creative exploration, education, sharing information and enriching American cultural heritage.
Our Library has already utilized Winnie the Pooh for last week’s virtual Storytime. With so many great characters at your disposal, I encourage you to get out there and write a new story! I can’t wait to read a steampunk science fiction novel where Winnie the Pooh, Sherlock Holmes and the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz team up to fight the Elder Ones from H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories.
Have a wonderful week, and we hope to see you in the library!
Jared Jacavone is the librarian at the Tyrrell County Public Library.