Public Domain Day 2021: Honoring a lost generation

It’s Public Domain Day again. In much of Europe, and other countries with “life+70 years” copyright terms, works by authors who died in 1950, such as George Orwell, Karin Michaelis, George Bernard Shaw, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, have joined the public domain. Canada, and other countries that still have the Berne Convention’s “life+50 years” copyright terms, get works by authors like E. M. Forster, Nelly Sachs, Bertrand Russell, Elsa Triolet, and other authors who died in 1970 in the public domain. And in the United States, copyrights from 1925 that are still in force have expired, introducing to the public domain a wide variety of works I’ve covered in my prior blog post. The new public domain work that I’ve seen most widely noted is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby. My library has a copy of the first edition, and its scan of the volume became available on HathiTrust today.

Though he doesn’t use the term in Gatsby, Fitzgerald and many other authors writing around 1925 are often considered both members and chroniclers of the “Lost Generation”. The term was coined by Gertrude Stein, and made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who used it in the epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises (one of many more works scheduled to join the US public domain a year from now). The Lost Generation describes an age cohort that was disrupted by the First World War, and all the deaths caused by that war and by the influenza pandemic that arose in its wake. Society would never be the same afterwards.

It’s ironic that some of the definitive creations of that generation are themselves part of a largely lost generation. At the time of their publication, they were supposed to enter the public domain after 56 years at most, but that maximum term has been extended by 39 more years, well over a generation’s worth of time. The creators of these works that got the full copyright term are almost all now dead, and many of the less famous works in this cohort have also become lost from most people’s memories. Some, including many fragile films of that era, now have all copies lost as well.

The generation that now sees these works joining the public domain also has many of the makings of a new “lost generation”. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, which badly botched its response compared to many similar countries, far exceeds the number of American deaths in World War I, and is a sizable and rapidly growing fraction of all the American deaths from the 1918-1920 flu pandemic. Many more people who have dealt with illness and quarantine have also experienced what feels like a lost year, one that hasn’t ended yet despite today’s change in the calendar.

But it’s also important to recognize the key role of the public domain and of open access publications in preventing further loss. While Philadelphia, where I live, has been hit hard by this pandemic, it hasn’t been hit as hard as some other places, in part because masking and other behavioral changes have been more widely used and accepted here. Not long before the current pandemic started, the Mutter Museum’s Spit Spreads Death exhibit reminded us of the horrifying death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic here, caused in large part by failing to stop mass gatherings that made the flu spread like wildfire here. The exhibit’s narrative, which many other local media outlets further elaborated on, was able to freely draw on a wide variety of source materials of the era that were all in the public domain due to their age. The freely available sources from 1918 helped spread public health awareness here in 2020.

Open access to resources also spurred the rapid development and testing of effective treatments against COVID. Open sharing of the novel coronavirus genomes, and related scientific data, enabled research on the virus and effective responses to be carried out by many different labs across the globe, and many of the resulting research papers and research materials have also been made freely available in venues that are usually limited to paid subscribers. While much of this work is not public domain, strictly speaking, it is being shared and built on largely as if it were. That has enabled vaccines to be safely rolled out much more quickly than they have been for other diseases.

While we celebrate today’s belated additions to the public domain, it’s also important to promote and protect it, because there are still efforts to freeze it or roll it back. The successor to the NAFTA trade deal requires Canada to add 20 years to its copyright terms, for instance (though Canada has not yet implemented that provision). And while there is no current legislation to extend US copyright terms any further, such extensions have been proposed in the past, and we’ve just seen in Congress’s recent funding bill how questionable changes to copyright law can be jammed into “must-pass” legislation with little or no warning or recourse.

The public domain enriches our culture, reminds us and lets us learn from our past, and helps us make better futures. As 2021 gives us opportunities to turn the page, let’s celebrate the new opportunities we have to enjoy, share, reuse, and build on our newly public domain works. And let’s make sure we don’t lose any more generations.

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Counting down to 1925 in the public domain

We’re rapidly approaching another Public Domain Day, the day at the start of the year when a year’s worth of creative work joins the public domain. This will be the third year in a row that the US will have a full crop of new public domain works (after a prior 20-year drought), and once again, I’m noting and celebrating works that will be entering the public domain shortly. Approaching 2019, I wrote a one-post-a-day Advent Calendar for 1923 works throughout the month of December, and approaching 2020, I highlighted a few 1924 works, and related copyright issues, in a series of December posts called 2020 Vision.

This year I took to Twitter, making one tweet per day featuring a different 1925 work and creator using the #PublicDomainDayCountdown hashtag. Tweets are shorter than blog posts, but I started 99 days out, so by the time I finish the series at the end of December, I’ll have written short notices on more works than ever. Since not everyone reads Twitter, and there’s no guarantee that my tweets will always be accessible on that site, I’ll reproduce them here. (This post will be updated to include all the tweets up to 2021.) The tweet links have been reformatted for the blog, a couple of 2-tweet threads have been recombined, and some typos may be corrected.

If you’d like to comment yourself on any of the works mentioned here, or suggest others I can feature, feel free to reply here or on Twitter. (My account there is @JMarkOckerbloom. You’ll also find some other people tweeting on the #PublicDomainDayCountdown hashtag, and you’re welcome to join in as well.)

September 24: It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday. His best-known book, The Great Gatsby, joins the US public domain 99 days from now, along with other works with active 1925 copyrights. #PublicDomainDayCountdown (Links to free online books by Fitzgerald here.)

September 25: C. K. Scott-Moncrieff’s birthday’s today. He translated Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (a controversial title, as the Public Domain Review notes). The Guermantes Way, his translation of Proust’s 3rd volume, joins the US public domain in 98 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

September 26: Today is T.S. Eliot’s birthday. His poem “The Hollow Men” (which ends “…not with a bang but a whimper”) was first published in full in 1925, & joins the US public domain in 97 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown More by & about him here.

September 27: Lady Cynthia Asquith, born today in 1887, edited a number of anthologies that have long been read by children and fans of fantasy and supernatural fiction. Her first major collection, The Flying Carpet, joins the US public domain in 96 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

September 28: As @Marketplace reported tonight, Agatha Christie’s mysteries remain popular after 100 years. In 95 days, her novel The Secret of Chimneys will join the US public domain, as will the expanded US Poirot Investigates collection. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

September 29: Homer Hockett’s and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.’s Political and Social History of the United States first came out in 1925, and was an influential college textbook for years thereafter. The first edition joins the public domain in 94 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

September 30: Inez Haynes Gillmore Irwin died 50 years ago this month, after a varied, prolific writing career. This 2012 blog post looks at 4 of her books, including Gertrude Haviland’s Divorce, which joins the public domain in 93 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 1: For some, spooky stories and themes aren’t just for October, but for the whole year. We’ll be welcoming a new year’s worth of Weird Tales to the public domain in 3 months. See what’s coming, and what’s already free online, here. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 2: Misinformation and quackery has been a threat to public health for a long time. In 13 weeks, the 1925 book The Patent Medicine and the Public Health, by American quack-fighter Arthur J. Cramp joins the public domain. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 3: Sophie Treadwell, born this day in 1885, was a feminist, modernist playwright with several plays produced on Broadway, but many of her works are now hard to find. Her 1925 play “Many Mansions” joins the public domain in 90 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 4: It’s Edward Stratemeyer’s birthday. Books of his syndicate joining the public domain in 89 days include the debuts of Don Sturdy & the Blythe Girls, & further adventures of Tom Swift, Ruth Fielding, Baseball Joe, Betty Gordon, the Bobbsey Twins, & more. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 5: Russell Wilder was a pioneering diabetes doctor, testing newly invented insulin treatments that saved many patients’ lives. His 1925 book Diabetes: Its Cause and its Treatment with Insulin joins the public domain in 88 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 6: Queer British Catholic author Radclyffe Hall is best known for The Well of Loneliness. Hall’s earlier novel A Saturday Life is lighter, though it has some similar themes in subtext. It joins the US public domain in 87 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 7: Edgar Allan Poe’s stories have long been public domain, but some work unpublished when he died (on this day in 1849) stayed in © much longer. In 86 days, the Valentine Museum’s 1925 book of his previously unpublished letters finally goes public domain. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 8: In 1925, the Nobel Prize in Literature went to George Bernard Shaw. In 85 days, his Table-Talk, published that year, will join the public domain in the US, and all his solo works published in his lifetime will be public domain nearly everywhere else. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 9: Author and editor Edward Bok was born this day in 1863. In Twice Thirty (1925), he follows up his Pulitzer-winning memoir The Americanization of Edward Bok with a set of essays from the perspective of his 60s. It joins the public domain in 84 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 10: In the 1925 silent comedy “The Freshman”, Harold Lloyd goes to Tate University, “a large football stadium with a college attached”, and goes from tackling dummy to unlikely football hero. It joins the public domain in 83 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 11: It’s François Mauriac’s birthday. His Le Desert de l’Amour, a novel that won the 1926 Grand Prix of the Académie Française, joins the US public domain in 82 days. Published translations may stay copyrighted, but Americans will be free to make new ones. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 12: Pulitzer-winning legal scholar Charles Warren’s Congress, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court (1925) analyzes controversies, some still argued, over relations between the US legislature and the US judiciary. It joins the public domain in 81 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 13: Science publishing in 1925 was largely a boys’ club, but some areas were more open to women authors, such as nursing & science education. I look forward to Maude Muse’s Textbook of Psychology for Nurses going public domain in 80 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown #AdaLovelaceDay

October 14: Happy birthday to poet E. E. Cummings, born this day in 1894. (while some of his poetry is lowercase he usually still capitalized his name when writing it out) His collection XLI Poems joins the public domain in 79 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 15: It’s PG Wodehouse’s birthday. In 78 days more of his humorous stories join the US public domain, including Sam in the Suburbs. It originally ran as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post in 1925. All that year’s issues also join the public domain then. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 16: Playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill was born today in 1888. His “Desire Under the Elms” entered the US public domain this year; in 77 days, his plays “Marco’s Millions” and “The Great God Brown” will join it. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 17: Not everything makes it to the end of the long road to the US public domain. In 76 days, the copyright for the film Man and Maid (based on a book by Elinor Glyn) expires, but no known copies survive. Maybe someone will find one? #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 18: Corra Harris became famous for her novel A Circuit Rider’s Wife and her World War I reporting. The work she considered her best, though, was As a Woman Thinks. It joins the public domain in 75 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 19: Edna St. Vincent Millay died 70 years ago today. All her published work joins the public domain in 74 days in many places outside the US. Here, magazine work like “Sonnet to Gath” (in Sep 1925 Vanity Fair) will join, but renewed post-’25 work stays in ©. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 20: All songs eventually reach the public domain. Authors can put them there themselves, like Tom Lehrer just did for his lyrics. But other humorous songs arrive by the slow route, like Tilzer, Terker, & Heagney’s “Pardon Me (While I Laugh)” will in 73 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 21: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio wasn’t a best-seller when it came out, but his Dark Laughter was. Since Joycean works fell out of fashion, that book’s been largely forgotten, but may get new attention when it joins the public domain in 72 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 22: Artist NC Wyeth was born this day in 1882. The Brandywine Museum near Philadelphia shows many of his works. His illustrated edition of Francis Parkman’s book The Oregon Trail joins the public domain in 71 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 23: Today (especially at 6:02, on 10/23) many chemists celebrate #MoleDay. In 70 days, they’ll also get to celebrate historically important chemistry publications joining the US public domain, including all 1925 issues of Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 24: While some early Alfred Hitchcock films were in the US public domain for a while due to formality issues, the GATT accords restored their copyrights. His directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden, rejoins the public domain (this time for good) in 69 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown (Addendum: There may still be one more year of copyright to this film as of 2021; see the comments to this post for details.)

October 25: Albert Barnes took a different approach to art than most of his contemporaries. The first edition of The Art in Painting, where he explains his theories and shows examples from his collection, joins the public domain in 68 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 26: Prolific writer Carolyn Wells had a long-running series of mystery novels featuring Fleming Stone. Here’s a blog post by The Passing Tramp on one of them, The Daughter of the House, which will join the public domain in 67 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 27: Theodore Roosevelt was born today in 1858, and died over 100 years ago, but some of his works are still copyrighted. In 66 days, 2 volumes of his correspondence with Henry Cabot Lodge, written from 1884-1918 and published in 1925, join the public domain. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 28: American composer and conductor Howard Hanson was born on this day in 1896. His choral piece “Lament for Beowulf” joins the public domain in 65 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 29: “Skitter Cat” was a white Persian cat who had adventures in several children’s books by Eleanor Youmans, illustrated by Ruth Bennett. The first of the books joins the public domain in 64 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown #NationalCatDay

October 30:Secret Service Smith” was a detective created by Canadian author R. T. M. Maitland. His first magazine appearance was in 1920; his first original full-length novel, The Black Magician, joins the public domain in 9 weeks. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

October 31: Poet John Keats was born this day in 1795. Amy Lowell’s 2-volume biography links his Romantic poetry with her Imagist poetry. (1 review.) She finished and published it just before she died. It joins the public domain in 62 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 1: “Not just for an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.” Irving Berlin gave the rights to this song to his bride in 1926. Both are gone now, and in 2 months it will join the public domain for all of us, always. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 2: Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan dance, set to music by Camille Saint-Saëns, premiered in 1905, but its choreography wasn’t published until 1925, the same year a film of it was released. It joins the public domain in 60 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown (Choreography copyright is weird. Not only does the term not start until publication, which can be long after 1st performance, but what’s copyrightable has also changed. Before 1978 it had to qualify as dramatic; now it doesn’t, but it has to be more than a short step sequence.)

November 3: Herbert Hoover was the only sitting president to be voted out of office between 1912 & 1976. Before taking office, he wrote the foreword to Carolyn Crane’s Everyman’s House, part of a homeowners’ campaign he co-led. It goes out of copyright in 59 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 4:The Golden Cocoon” is a 1925 silent melodrama featuring an election, jilted lovers, and extortion. The Ruth Cross novel it’s based on went public domain this year. The film will join it there in 58 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 5: Investigative journalist Ida Tarbell was born today in 1857. Her History of Standard Oil helped break up that trust in 1911, but her Life of Elbert H. Gary wrote more admiringly of his chairmanship of US Steel. It joins the public domain in 57 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 6: Harold Ross was born on this day in 1892. He was the first editor of The New Yorker, which he established in coöperation with his wife, Jane Grant. After ninety-five years, the magazine’s first issues are set to join the public domain in fifty-six days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 7: “Sweet Georgia Brown” by Ben Bernie & Maceo Pinkard (lyrics by Kenneth Casey) is a jazz standard, the theme tune of the Harlem Globetrotters, and a song often played in celebration. One thing we can celebrate in 55 days is it joining the public domain. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 8: Today I hiked on the Appalachian Trail. It was completed in 1937, but parts are much older. Walter Collins O’Kane’s Trails and Summits of the White Mountains, published in 1925 when the AT was more idea than reality, goes public domain in 54 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 9: In Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, a brilliant medical researcher deals with personal and ethical issues as he tries to find a cure for a deadly epidemic. The novel has stayed relevant well past its 1925 publication, and joins the public domain in 53 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 10: John Marquand was born today in 1893. He’s known for his spy stories and satires, but an early novel, The Black Cargo, features a sailor curious about a mysterious payload on a ship he’s been hired onto. It joins the US public domain in 52 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 11: The first world war, whose armistice was 102 years ago today, cast a long shadow. Among the many literary works looking back to it is Ford Madox Ford’s novel No More Parades, part of his “Parade’s End” tetralogy. It joins the public domain in 51 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 12: Anne Parrish was born on this day in 1888. In 1925, The Dream Coach, co-written with her brother, got a Newbery honor , and her novel The Perennial Bachelor was a best-seller. The latter book joins the public domain in 50 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 13: In “The Curse of the Golden Cross”, G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown once again finds a natural explanation to what seem to be preternatural symbols & events. As of today, Friday the 13th, the 1925 story is exactly 7 weeks away from the US public domain. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 14: The pop standard “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” was the baby of Walter Donaldson (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics). It’s been performed by many artists since its composition, and in 48 days, this baby steps out into the public domain. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 15: Marianne Moore, born on this day in 1887, had a long literary career, including editing the influential modernist magazine The Dial from 1925 on. In 47 days, all 1925 issues of that magazine will be fully in the public domain. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 16: George S. Kaufman, born today in 1889, wrote or directed a play in every Broadway season from 1921 till 1958. In 46 days, several of his plays join the public domain, including his still-performed comedy “The Butter and Egg Man”. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 17: Shen of the Sea was a Newbery-winning collection of stories presented as “Chinese” folktales, but written by American author Arthur Bowie Chrisman. Praised when first published, seen more as appropriation later, it’ll be appropriable itself in 45 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 18: I share a birthday today with Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic philosopher who influenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His book on 3 reformers (Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau) joins the public domain in 44 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 19: Prevailing views of history change a lot over 95 years. The 1926 Pulitzer history prize went to a book titled “The War for Southern Independence”. The last volume of Edward Channing’s History of the United States, it joins the public domain in 43 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 20: Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World includes a nuanced discussion of science and religion differing notably from many of his contemporaries’. (A recent review of it.) It joins the US public domain in 6 weeks.

November 21: Algonquin Round Table member Robert Benchley tried reporting, practical writing, & reviews, but soon found that humorous essays & stories were his forte. One early collection, Pluck and Luck, joins the public domain in 41 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 22: I’ve often heard people coming across a piano sit down & pick out Hoagy Carmichael’s “Heart and Soul”. He also had other hits, one being “Washboard Blues“. His original piano instrumental version becomes public domain in 40 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 23: Harpo Marx, the Marx Brothers mime, was born today in 1888. In his oldest surviving film, “Too Many Kisses” he does “speak”, but silently (like everyone else in it), without his brothers. It joins the public domain in 39 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 24: In The Man Nobody Knows, Bruce Barton likened the world of Jesus to the world of business. Did he bring scriptural insight to management, or subordinate Christianity to capitalism? It’ll be easier to say, & show, after it goes public domain in 38 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 25: Before Virgil Thomson (born today in 1896) was well-known as a composer, he wrote a music column for Vanity Fair. His first columns, and the rest of Vanity Fair for 1925, join the public domain in 37 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 26: “Each moment that we’re apart / You’re never out of my heart / I’d rather be lonely and wait for you only / Oh how I miss you tonight” Those staying safe by staying apart this holiday might appreciate this song, which joins the public domain in 36 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown (The song, “Oh, How I Miss You Tonight” is by Benny Davis, Joe Burke, and Mark Fisher, was published in 1925, and performed and recorded by many musicians since then, some of whom are mentioned in this Wikipedia article.)

November 27: Feminist author Katharine Anthony, born today in 1877, was best known for her biographies. Her 1925 biography of Catherine the Great, which drew extensively on the empress’s private memoirs, joins the public domain in 35 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 28: Tonight in 1925 “Barn Dance” (soon renamed “Grand Ole Opry”) debuted in Nashville. Most country music on it & similar shows then were old favorites, but there were new hits too, like “The Death of Floyd Collins”, which joins the public domain in 34 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown (The song, with words by Andrew Jenkins and music by John Carson, was in the line of other disaster ballads that were popular in the 1920s. This particular disaster had occurred earlier in the year, and became the subject of song, story, drama, and film.)

November 29: As many folks get ready for Christmas, many Christmas-themed works are also almost ready to join the public domain in 33 days. One is The Holly Hedge, and Other Christmas Stories by Temple Bailey. More on the book & author. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

November 30: In 1925 John Maynard Keynes published The Economic Consequences of Sterling Parity objecting to Winston Churchill returning the UK to the gold standard. That policy ended in 1931; the book’s US copyright lasted longer, but will finally end in 32 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 1: Du Bose Heyward’s novel Porgy has a distinguished legacy of adaptations, including a 1927 Broadway play, and Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess”. When the book joins the public domain a month from now, further adaptation possibilities are limitless. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 2: In Dorothy Black’s Romance — The Loveliest Thing a young Englishwoman “inherits a small sum of money, buys a motor car and goes off in search of adventure and romance”. First serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal, it joins the public domain in 30 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 3: Joseph Conrad was born on this day in 1857, and died in 1924, leaving unfinished his Napoleonic novel Suspense. But it was still far enough along to get serialized in magazines and published as a book in 1925, and it joins the public domain in 29 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 4: Ernest Hemingway’s first US-published story collection In Our Time introduced his distinctive style to an American audience that came to view his books as classics of 20th century fiction: It joins the public domain in 28 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 5: Libertarian author Rose Wilder Lane helped bring her mother’s “Little House” fictionalized memoirs into print. Before that, she published biographical fiction based on the life of Jack London, called He Was a Man. It joins the public domain in 27 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 6: Indiana naturalist and author Gene Stratton-Porter died on this day in 1924. Her final novel, The Keeper of the Bees, was published the following year, and joins the public domain in 26 days. One review. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 7: Willa Cather was born today in 1873. Her novel The Professor’s House depicts 1920s cultural dislocation from a different angle than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s better-known Great Gatsby. It too joins the public domain in 25 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 8: The last symphony published by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (born on this day in 1865) is described in the Grove Dictionary as his “most remarkable compositional achievement”. It joins the public domain in the US in 24 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 9: When the Habsburg Empire falls, what comes next for the people & powers of Vienna? The novel Old Wine, by Phyllis Bottome (wife of the local British intelligence head) depicts a society undergoing rapid change. It joins the US public domain in 23 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 10: Lewis Browne was “a world traveler, author, rabbi, former rabbi, lecturer, socialist and friend of the literary elite”. His first book, Stranger than Fiction: A Short History of the Jews, joins the public domain in 22 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 11: In 1925, John Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution in Tennessee. Books explaining the science to lay audiences were popular that year, including Henshaw Ward’s Evolution for John Doe. It becomes public domain in 3 weeks. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 12: Philadelphia artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris was best known for his “Pageant of a Nation” paintings. Three of them, “The Birth of Pennsylvania”, “Gettysburg, 1863”, and “The Mayflower Compact”, join the public domain in 20 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 13: The Queen of Cooks, and Some Kings was a memoir of London hotelier Rosa Lewis, as told to Mary Lawton. Her life story was the basis for the BBC and PBS series “The Duchess of Duke Street”. It joins the public domain in 19 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 14: Today we’re celebrating new films being added to the National Film Registry. In 18 days, we can also celebrate more Registry films joining the public domain. One is The Clash of the Wolves, starring Rin Tin Tin. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 15: Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, daughter of a high-ranking Japanese official, moved to the US in an arranged marriage after her family fell on hard times. Her 1925 memoir, A Daughter of the Samurai, joins the public domain in 17 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 16: On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs compiled by Dorothy Scarborough assisted by Ola Lee Gulledge, has over 100 songs. Scarborough’s next of kin (not Gulledge, or any of their sources) renewed its copyright in 1953. But in 16 days, it’ll be free for all. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 17: Virginia Woolf’s writings have been slowly entering the public domain in the US. We’ve had the first part of her Mrs. Dalloway for a while. The complete novel, and her first Common Reader essay collection, join it in 15 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 18: Lovers in Quarantine with Harrison Ford sounds like a movie made for 2020, but it’s actually a 1925 silent comedy (with a different Harrison Ford). It’ll be ready to go out into the public domain after a 14-day quarantine. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 19: Ma Rainey wrote, sang, and recorded many blues songs in a multi-decade career. Two of her songs becoming public domain in 13 days are “Shave ’em Dry” (written with William Jackson) & “Army Camp Harmony Blues” (with Hooks Tilford). #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 20: For years we’ve celebrated the works of prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton as her stories join the public domain. In 12 days, The Writing of Fiction, her book on how she writes her memorable tales, will join that company. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 21: Albert Payson Terhune, born today in 1872, raised and wrote about dogs he kept at what’s now a public park in New Jersey. His book about Wolf, who died heroically and is buried there, will also be in the public domain in 11 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 22: In the 1920s it seemed Buster Keaton could do anything involving movies. Go West, a 1925 feature film that he co-wrote, directed, co-produced, and starred in, is still enjoyed today, and it joins the public domain in 10 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 23: In 9 days, not only will Theodore Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy be in the public domain, but so will a lot of the raw material that went into it. Much of it is in @upennlib‘s special collections. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 24: Johnny Gruelle, born today in 1880, created the Raggedy Ann doll, and a series of books sold with it that went under many Christmas trees. Two of them, Raggedy Ann’s Alphabet Book and Raggedy Ann’s Wishing Pebble, join the public domain in 8 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 25: Written in Hebrew by Joseph Klausner, translated into English by Anglican priest Herbert Danby, Jesus of Nazareth reviewed Jesus’s life and teachings from a Jewish perspective. It made a stir when published in 1925, & joins the public domain in 7 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 26: “It’s a travesty that this wonderful, hilarious, insightful book lives under the inconceivably large shadow cast by The Great Gatsby.” A review of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also joining the public domain in 6 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 27: “On revisiting Manhattan Transfer, I came away with an appreciation not just for the breadth of its ambition, but also for the genius of its representation.” A review of the John Dos Passos novel becoming public domain in 5 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 28: All too often legal systems and bureaucracies can be described as “Kafkaesque”. The Kafka work most known for that sense of arbitrariness and doom is Der Prozess (The Trial), reviewed here. It joins the public domain in 4 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 29: Chocolate Kiddies, an African American music and dance revue that toured Europe in 1925, featured songs by Duke Ellington and Jo Trent including “Jig Walk”, “Jim Dandy”, and “With You”. They join the public domain in 3 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

December 30: Lon Chaney starred in 2 of the top-grossing movies of 1925. The Phantom of the Opera has long been in the public domain due to copyright nonrenewal. The Unholy Three, which was renewed, joins it in the public domain in 2 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown (If you’re wondering why some of the other big film hits of 1925 haven’t been in this countdown, in many cases it’s also because their copyrights weren’t renewed. Or they weren’t actually copyrighted in 1925.)

December 31: “…You might as well live.” Dorothy Parker published “Resumé” in 1925, and ultimately outlived most of her Algonquin Round Table-mates. This poem, and her other 1925 writing for periodicals, will be in the public domain tomorrow. #PublicDomainDayCountdown

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Everybody’s Library Questions: Finding films in the public domain

Welcome to another installment of Everybody’s Library Questions, where I give answers to questions people ask me (in comments or email) that seem to be useful for general consumption.

Before I start, though, I want to put in a plug for your local librarians.  Even though many library buildings are closed now (as they should be) while we’re trying to get propagation and treatment for COVID-19 under control, many of those libraries offer online services, including interactive online help from librarians. (Many of our libraries are also expanding the scope and hours of these services during this health crisis.)   Your local librarians will have the best knowledge of what’s available to you, can find out more about your needs when they talk to you, and will usually be able to respond to questions faster than I or other specific folks on the Internet can. Check out your favorite library’s website, and look for links like “get help” or “online chat” and see what they offer.

OK, now here’s the question, extracted from a comment made by Nicholas Escobar to a recent post:

I am currently studying at the University of Edinburgh getting masters degree in film composition. For my final project I am required to score a 15 minute film. I was thinking of picking a short silent film (any genre) in the public domain that is 15 minutes (or very close to that length) and was wondering if you had any suggestions?

There are three questions implied by this one: First, how do you find out what films exist that meet your content criteria?  Second, how do you find out whether films in that set are in the public domain?  Finally, how can you get access to a film so you can do things with it (such as write a score for it)?

There are a few ways you can come up with films to consider.  One is to ask your local librarian (see above) or professor to recommend reference works or data sources that feature short films.  (Information about feature films, which run longer, are often easier to find, but there’s a fair bit out there as well on short films.)  Another is to search some of the reference works and online data sources I’ll mention in the other answers below.

The answer to the copyright question depends on where you are.  In the United States, there are basically three categories of public domain films:

That’s the situation in the United States, at least.  However, if you’re not in the United States, different rules may apply.  In Edinburgh and elsewhere in the United Kingdom (and in most of the rest of Europe), works are generally copyrighted until the end of the 70th year after the death of the last author.  In the UK, the authors of a film are considered to be the principal director, the screenwriter(s), and the composer(s).  (For more specifics, see the relevant portion of UK law.)  However, some countries will also let the copyrights of foreign works expire when they do in their country of origin, and in those a US film that’s in the public domain in the US would also be public domain in those countries.  As you can see in the UK law section I link to, the UK does apply such a “rule of the shorter term” to films from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), if none of the authors are EEA nationals.  So you might be good to go in the UK with many, but not all, US films that are public domain in the US.  (I’m not a UK copyright expert, though; you might want to talk to one to be sure.)

Let’s suppose you’ve come up with some suitable possible films, either ones that are in the public domain, ones that have suitable Creative Commons licenses or you can otherwise get permission to score, or ones that are in-copyright but that you could score in the context of a study project, even if you couldn’t publish the resulting audiovisual work.  (Educational fair use is a thing, though its scope also varies from country to country.  Here a guide from the British Library on how it works in the UK.)  We then move on to the last question: How do you get hold of a copy so you can write a score for it?

The answer to that question depends on your situation.  Right now, the situation for many of us is that we’re stuck at home, and can’t visit libraries or archives in person.  (And our ability to get physical items like DVDs or videotapes may be limited too.)  So for now, you may be limited to films you can obtain online.  There are various free sources of public domain films: I’ve already mentioned the Internet Archive, whose moving image archive includes many films that are in the public domain (and many that are not, so check rights before choosing one to score).  The Library of Congress also offers more than 2,000 compilations and individual films free to all online.  And your local library may well offer more, as digital video, or as physical recordings (if you can still obtain those).  A number of streaming services that libraries or individuals can subscribe to offer films in the public domain that you can free free to set to music.  Check with your librarian or browse the collection of your favorite streaming service.

I’m not an expert in films myself.  Folks reading this who know more, or have more suggestions, should feel free to add comments to this post while comments are open.  In general, the first librarians you talk to won’t usually be experts about the questions you ask.  But even when we can’t give definitive answers on our own, we’re good at sending researchers in productive directions, whether that’s to useful research and reference sources, or to more knowledgeable people.  I hope you’ll take advantage of your librarians’ help, especially during this health crisis.  And, for my questioner and other folks who are interested in scoring or otherwise building on public domain films, I’ll be very interested in hearing about the new works you produce from them.

 

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Welcome to everybody’s online libraries

As coronavirus infections spread throughout the world, lots of people are staying home to slow down the spread and save lives.  In the US, many universities, schools, and libraries have closed their doors.  (Here’s what happening at the library where I work, which as I write this has closed all its buildings.)  But lots of people are still looking for information, to continue studies online, or just to find something good to read.

Libraries are stepping up to provide these things online.  Many libraries have provided online information for years, through our own websites, electronic resources that we license, create, or link to, and other online services.  During this crisis, as our primary forms of interaction move online, many of us will be working hard to meet increased demand for digital materials and services (even as many library workers also have to cope with increased demands and stresses on their personal lives). Services are likely to be in flux for a while.  I have a few suggestions for the near term:

Check your libraries’ web sites regularly. They should tell you whether the libraries are now physically open or closed (many are closed now, for good reason), and what services the library is currently offering.  Those might change over time, sometimes quickly.  Our main library location at Penn, for instance, was declared closed indefinitely last night, less than 12 hours before it was next due to reopen.   On the other hand, some digitally mediated library services and resources might not be available initially, but then become available after we have safe and workable procedures set up for them and sufficient staffing.   

Many library web sites also prominently feature their most useful electronic resources and services, and have extensive collections of electronic resources in their catalogs or online directories.  They may be acquiring more electronic resources to meet increased user demand for online content. Some providers are also increasing what they offer to their library customers during the crisis, and sometimes making some of their material free for all to access.

If  you need particular things from your library during this crisis, reach out to them using the contact information given on their website.  When libraries know what their users need, they can often make those needs a priority, and can let you know if and when they can provide them.

Check out other free online library services.    I run one of them, The Online Books Page, which now lists over 3 million books and serials freely readable online due to their public domain status or the generosity of their rightsholders.   We’ll be adding more material there over the next few weeks as we incorporate the listings of more collections, and respond to your requests.  There are many other services online as well.   Wikipedia serves not only as a crowd-sourced collection of articles on millions of topics, but also as a directory of further online resources related to those topics.   And the Internet Archive also offers access millions of books and other information resources no longer readily commercially available, many through controlled digital lending and other manifestations of fair use.  (While the limits of fair use are often subject to debate, library copyright specialists make a good case that its bounds tend to increase during emergencies like this one.  See also Kyle Courtney’s blog for more discussion of useful things libraries can do in a health crisis with their copyright powers.)

Support the people who provide the informative and creative resources you value.  The current health crisis has also triggered an economic crisis that will make life more precarious for many creators.  If you have funds you can spare, send some of them their way so they can keep making and publishing the content you value.  Humble Bundles, for instance, offer affordable packages of ebooks, games, and other online content you can enjoy while you’re staying home, and pay for to support their authors, publishers, and associated charities.  (I recently bought their Tachyon SF bundle with that in mind; it’s on offer for two more weeks as I write this.)  Check the websites of your favorite authors and artists to see if they offer ways to sponsor their work, or specific projects they’re planning.  Buy books from your favorite independent booksellers (and if they’re closed now, check their website or call them to see if you can buy gift cards to keep them afloat now and redeem them for books later on).  Pay for journalism you value.  Support funding robust libraries in your community.

Consider ways you can help build up online libraries.  Many research papers on COVID-19 and related topics have been opened to free access by their authors or publishers since the crisis began.  Increasing numbers of scholarly and other works are also being made open access, especially by those who have already been paid for creating them.   If you’re interested in sharing your work more broadly, and want to learn more about how you can secure rights to do so, the Authors’ Alliance has some useful resources.

As libraries shift focus from in-person to online service, some librarians may be busy with new tasks, while others may be left hanging until new plans and procedures get put into motion.  If you’re in the latter category, and want something to do, there are various library-related projects you can work on or learn about.  One that I’m running is the deep backfile project to identify serial issues that are in the public domain in less-than-obvious ways, and to find or create free digital copies of these serials (so that, among other things, people who are stuck at home can read them online).  I’ve recently augmented my list of serial backfiles to research to include serials held by the library in which I work, in the hopes that we could eventually find or produce digital surrogates for some of them that our readers (and anyone else interested) could access from afar.  I can also add sets for other libraries; if you’re interested in one for yours, let me know and I can go into more detail about the data I’m looking for.  (I’m not too worried about creating too many serial sets to research, especially since once information about a serial is added into one of the serial sets, it also gets automatically added into any other sets that include that serial.)

Take care of yourself, and your loved ones.  Whether you work in libraries of just use them, this is a stressful time.  Give yourself and those around you room and resources to cope, as we disengage from much of our previous activities, and deal with new responsibilities and concerns.  I’m gratified to see the response of the Wikimedia Foundation, for instance, which is committed both to keeping the world well-informed and up-to-date through Wikipedia and related projects, and also to letting its staff and contractors work half-time for the same pay during the crisis, and waiving sick-day limits. Among new online community support initiatives, I’m also pleased to see librarian-created resources like the Ontario Library Association’s pandemic information brief, with useful information for library users and workers, and the COVID4GLAM Discord community, a discussion space to support the professional and personal needs of people working in libraries, archives, galleries and museums.

These will be difficult times ahead.  Our libraries can make a difference online, even as our doors are closed.  I hope you’ll be able to put them to good use.

 

Posted in libraries, online books, open access | 4 Comments

Public Domain Day 2020: Coming Around Again

I’m very happy for 2020 to be arriving.  As the start of the 2020s, it represents a new decade in which we can have a fresh start, and hope to make better decisions and have better outcomes than some of what we’ve gone through in recent years.  And I’m also excited to have a full year’s worth of copyrighted works entering the public domain in much of the world, including in the US for the second year in a row after a 20-year public domain freeze.

Outside the US, in countries that still use the Berne Convention‘s “life plus 50 years” copyright terms, works by authors who died in 1969 are now in the public domain.  (Such countries include Canada, New Zealand, and a number of other countries mostly in Asia and Africa.)  Many other countries, including most European countries, have extended copyright terms to life of the author(s) plus 70 years, often under pressure from the United States or the European Union.  In those countries, works by authors who died in 1949 are now in the public domain.  The Public Domain Review has a “class of 2020” post featuring some of these authors, along with links to lists of other people who died in the relevant years.

In the US, nearly all remaining copyrights from 1924 have now expired, just as copyrights from 1923 expired at the start of last year.  (The exceptions are sound recordings, which will still be under copyright for a little while longer.   But thanks to recent changes in copyright law, those too will join the public domain soon instead of remaining indefinitely in state copyright.)  I discussed some of the works joining the public domain in a series of blog posts last month, in the last one linking to some posts by others that mentioned new public domain arrivals from 1924.  But I’m happy not just because of these specific works, but also because new arrivals to the US public domain are now an annual event, and not just something that happens with published works at rare intervals.  I could get used to this.

It isn’t all good news this year.  The most recent draft of the intellectual property chapter of the US-Canada-Mexico trade agreement requires Canada to extend its copyrights another 20 years, making it freeze its public domain not long after we’ve unfrozen our own in the US.  But the agreement hasn’t yet been ratified, and could conceivably still be changed or rejected.  And the continued force of copyrights from the second half of the previous ’20s while we’re entering a new set of ’20s is a reminder that US copyright terms remain overlong; so long, in fact, that many works from that era are lost or severely deteriorated before their copyrights expire.

But there’s now an annual checklist of things to do for me and for many other library organizations.  For me, some of the things to do for The Online Books Page include:

  • Updating our documentation on what’s public domain  (done) and on what versions of our site are public domain (also done; as in previous years, I’m dedicating to the public domain works that I wrote whose copyrights I control that are were published more than 14 years ago.  This year that includes the 2005 copyrights to The Online Books Page.)
  • Removing the “no US access” notices from 1924 books I’d linked to at non-US sites, when I couldn’t previously establish that they were public domain here; and removing “US access only” notices for 1879 volumes at HathiTrust, which over the next few days will be making 140-year-old volumes globally accessible without requiring author-death-date review.   (This and other activities below will start tomorrow and continue until done.)
  • Updating our list of first active renewals for serials and our “Determining copyright status of serial issues” decision guide to reflect the expiration of 1924’s copyrights.  As part of this process, I’ll be deleting all the 1924 serial issue and contribution renewals currently recorded in our serials knowledge base, since they’re no longer in force.  If anyone wants to know what they were for historical or other analytical purposes, I have a zipped collection of all our serial renewals records as of the end of 2019, available on request.  They can also be found in the January 1, 2020 commit of this Github directory.
  • Adding newly opened or scanned 1924 books to our listings, through our automated OAI harvests of selected digital collections, readers’ suggestions and requests, surveys of prize winners and other relevant collections, and our own bibliographer selections.

All of this is work I’m glad to be doing this year, and hope to be doing more in the years to come.  (And I’m already streamlining our processes to make it easier to do in years to come.)  Its the job of libraries to collect and preserve works of knowledge and creativity and make them easy for people to discover, access, and use.  It’s also our job to empower our users to draw on those works to make new ones.  As the public domain grows, we can freely collect and widely share more works, and our users can likewise build on and reuse more public domain works in their own creations.

Supporting the public domain, then, is supporting the work and mission of libraries.  I therefore hope that all libraries and their users will support a robust public domain, and have more works to celebrate and work with every year.  Happy Public Domain Day!

 

 

 

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2020 vision #5: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

It’s only a few hours from the new year where I write this, but before I ring in the new year, and a new year’s worth of public domain material, I’d like to put in a request for what music to ring it in with: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which joins the public domain in the US as the clock strikes twelve, over 95 years after it was first performed.

The unofficial song for Public Domain Day 2019 turned out to be “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, one of the members of the first big class of US public domain works in the last 20 years.  That’s a fun novelty song, and certainly memorable, but not something I necessarily want to hear a lot.  In contrast, for me Rhapsody in Blue has a freshness that makes it a joy for me to hear repeatedly, right from the opening clarinet glissando (apparently the idea of clarinetist Ross Gorman, who took the scale that Gershwin had composed for the piece and gave it the bendy, slidy wail that tells you right away that this is no ordinary concert piece).  It’s brought together classical, popular, high-art and everyday music, as it’s been played and recorded countless times by jazz bands (the original scoring is for jazz band and piano), symphony orchestras, and pop musicans like Billy Joel.  Even its licensing as an theme tune for an airline hasn’t diminished it.

There’s lots of other work joining the public domain along with Gershwin’s tune.  I’ve only had a chance to mention a few others in my short series, but others have mentioned more works you may find of interest. At the Internet Archive’s blog, Elizabeth Townsend Gard writes about Vera Brittain’s Not without Honour and other 1924 works that will be in the public domain very soon.  Duke’s Public Domain Day 2020 post mentions various books, films, and musical compositions joining the public domain as well (and has more to say on Rhapsody in Blue).  Wikipedia’s various 1924 articles also mention various works that will either be joining the public domain, or becoming more clearly established there.  And Hathitrust will begin opening access to tens of thousands of scanned volumes from 1924 over the next few days.

I’ll have more to say on the new arrivals tomorrow, sometime after the midnight bells chime.  By tradition, the first tune played in the New Year is usually the public domain song “Auld Lang Syne”.  But after that, at your new years’ party or at a later Public Domain celebration, you might enjoy hearing or playing Gershwin’s new arrival in the public domain.

 

 

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2020 vision #4: Ding Dong Merrily on High by George Ratcliffe Woodward and others

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas everywhere I go.  The library where I work had its holiday party earlier this week, where I joined librarian colleagues singing Christmas, Hanukkah, and winter-themed songs in a pick-up chorus.  Radio stations and shopping centers play a familiar rotation of popular seasonal songs whose biggest hits are from a surprisingly narrow date range centered in the 1950s.  And more traditional familiar Christmas carols, hymns, and songs are being sung and played in concert halls and churches well into January.

The more “classic” Christmas music often feels timeless to those of us singing and hearing it.  But while their roots often go back far, the form in which we know them is often much newer that we might think.  Notice how the list in the previous link, for instance, includes “Carol of the Bells”, dated 1936.  That’s when it was first published as a Christmas song, one that’s still under copyright.  Its roots are older, and darker, as is made clear in a recent Slate article well worth reading. As noted there, the melody is based on a Ukrainian folk tune (date unknown), its full musical setting composed by Mykola Leontovych (assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1921), and Christmas-themed lyrics written by the Ukrainian-descended American musician Peter Wilhousky (who lived until 1978).

While “Carol of the Bells” still has a number of years left to go on its copyright, another classic Christmas carol will most likely be joining the public domain in the US in just under two weeks.  Like Carol of the Bells, “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is based on a folk tune, in this case a secular dance tune first published in France in the 16th century under the title “Branle de l’Official”.  In 1924, George Ratcliffe Woodward, an English cleric already known for publishing collections of old songs, wrote lyrics for the tune recalling earlier ages, and included them in the Cambridge Carol-Book, published that year by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Charles Wood, who’d collaborated with Woodward on the earlier Cowley Carol Book,  wrote a harmonization to go with it.  While you won’t hear it at every Christmas service, it remains widely sung this time of year.  That’s in large part because it’s so much fun to sing, with its dance-like rhythms, its long bell-like vocal runs on “Gloria” (something also heard in “Angels We Have Heard on High“), and its praise of various forms of music (musicians liking to hear good things about themselves as much as anyone else).

I don’t actually know for sure that “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is still under copyright here.  I have not found a 1951 or 1952 copyright renewal for the song or the book it was published in, but I’m assuming that, if nothing else, GATT restoration retroactively secured and automatically renewed a 1924 US copyright for the song as published in the Cambridge Carol-Book.  (Folks with more knowledge or legal expertise are free to correct me on that.)  Later published arrangements of the song may continue to have active copyrights, but only for material original to those arrangements.  1924’s remaining copyrights, on the other hand, all end in the US on January 1.   (And since Woodward and Wood both died over 70 years ago, the song’s already public domain in most other countries.)

The arrival of 2020, then, should at least clear up any ambiguity about the public domain status of the basic carol.  I appreciate that, in part because this song, like many other Christmas carols, lives in a sort of liminal space between the private property regimes set up for copyright holders and the older, more informal understandings of folk culture.  Both kinds of spaces have good reason to exist. On the one hand, it’s good to have more than a few people who can earn a living through music, and one important way many musicians do so is by controlling rights to their compositions.  On the other hand, the folk process, which originally gave rise to the tunes for both “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and “Carol of the Bells”, is also a very good way of creating and passing on shared cultural works.

Conflict can rage when two different sets of cultural expectations around creative works try to occupy the same space.  That’s one reason we’ve seen decades of conflict in academia over open access, where scholarly work is largely published by companies that depend on its control and sale to earn money, while it’s largely written by scholars who earn their money in other ways, and tend to prefer free, widespread availability of their work.  Sometimes informal arrangements work best to keep the peace.  Publishers, for instance, have grown more used to free preprint servers, and memes and fan fiction communities have become more widely accepted (and even winning awards) as long as they stay well away from unauthorized commercial exploitation (where both big and small creators tend to draw the line).

Sometimes, though, it’s best to have a more formal understanding that works are free for anyone to freely use as we like.  That’s what we’ll have when 1924’s copyrights end, and the works they cover, such as “Ding Dong Merrily on High” are clearly seen to be in the public domain.  And then, those of us who are so inclined can freely sing “hosanna in excelsis!

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2020 vision #3: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

“Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes–the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.”

Sanger Rainsford speaks these words at the start of “The Most Dangerous Game”, one of the most famous short stories of all time. First published in Collier’s magazine in 1924, it’s been reprinted in numerous anthologies, been adapted for radio, TV, and multiple movies, and assigned in countless middle and high school English classes.  The tropes established in the story, in which a hunter finds himself a “huntee”, are so well-established in present-day American culture that there are lengthy TV Tropes pages not just for the story itself, but for the trope named by its title.

Up until now, the story’s been under copyright in the US, as well as in Europe and other countries that have “life plus 70 years” copyright terms.  (The author, Richard Connell,  died just over 70 years ago in 1949, so as of January 1, it will be public domain nearly everywhere in the world.)  Anyone reprinting the story, or explicitly adapting it for drama or art has had to get permission or pay a royalty.  On the other hand, many creators have reused its basic idea– humans being hunted for sport or entertainment– without getting such permission.

That’s because ideas themselves are not copyrightable, but rather the expression of those ideas.  And the basic idea long predates this particular story: Consider, for instance, gladiators in Roman arenas, or tributes being hunted down in the Labyrinth by the Minotaur of Greek mythology.  But the particular formulation in Connell’s short story, in which General Zaroff, a former nobleman bored with hunting animals, lures humans to his private island to hunt and kill them for sport, is both distinctively memorable, and copyrightable.  Stray too close to it, or quote too much from the story, and you may find yourself the target of lawyers.  (But perhaps not if you yourself are dangerous enough game.  I don’t know if the makers of “The Incredibles“, which also featured a rich recluse using his wits and inventions to hunt humans on a private island, paid royalties to Connell’s estate, or relied on fair use or arguments about uncopyrightable ideas.  But in any case, Disney is better equipped to either negotiate or defend themselves against infringement lawsuits than others would be.)

Rereading the story recently, I’m struck by both how it reflects its time in some ways, and in how its action is surprisingly economical.  In 1924, we were still living in the shadow of the First World War, in which multiple empires and noble houses fell, while others continued but began to teeter.  The deadly spectacles of public executions and lynchings were still not uncommon in the United States.  And the dividing of people into two classes– those who are inherently privileged and those who are left in the cold or even considered fair game– was particularly salient that year, as the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan neared its peak in popularity, and as immigration law was changed to explicitly keep out people of the “wrong” national origin or race.  Those sorts of division haunt our society to this day.

Rainsford objects to Zaroff’s dehumanizing game in what we now tend to think of the story’s setup, which actually takes most of the story’s telling.  (The description of the hunt itself is relatively brief, and no words at all are used to describe the final showdown, which implicitly takes place in the gap between the story’s last two sentences.)  In the end, though, Rainsford prevails by beating his opponent at his own game.  He doesn’t want to kill another human being, but when pressed to the extreme, he adopts his opponent’s rules (at the end giving Zaroff the sporting warning “I am still a beast at bay… Get ready”) and proves to be the better killer.

With the story entering the public domain in less than three weeks, we’ll have the chance to reuse, adapt, and critique the story in quotation more freely than ever before.  I hope we use the opportunity not just to recapitulate the story, but to go beyond it in new ways. That’s what happens in the best reuses of tropes.  Consider for instance, how in the Hunger Games books, the main character Katniss repeatedly finds ways to subvert the trope of killing others for entertainment.  Instead of prevailing by beating opponents at the deadly human-hunting game the enemy has created, she and her allies find ways to reject the game’s premise, cut it short, or prevent its recurrence.

When, in 19 days, we get another year’s worth of public domain works, I hope we too find ways not just to revisit what’s come before, but make new and better work out of them.  That’s something that the public domain allows everyone, and not just members of some privileged class, to do.

 

 

 

 

 

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