Public Domain Day 2019: Welcome to 1923!

Early this morning, a full year’s worth of published works were welcomed into the public domain in the United States for the first time since 1998. Hundreds of thousands of works from 1923 either joined the public domain here, or achieved a much more obvious and visible public domain status.

This is not news to anyone who’s been following this blog, which has had a post per day discussing some of the many upcoming additions to the public domain.  I’ve also been posting about Public Domain Day here since 2008, but as an American haven’t had a lot to celebrate here till now.  I now find myself feeling much like I did when the Red Sox broke their World Series drought in 2004, or the Eagles finally won a Super Bowl last year: elation, mixed with thoughts that it’s been a long time coming, and wishes that I could celebrate now with everyone I’ve known who’s waited for it these past 21 years.

One thing I’m very happy to see today is that the public domain now has lots of friends, who are now much more numerous, aware, and organized than they were in 1998, the last time copyright was extended here.  They’ve helped ensure that there wasn’t another serious attempt to extend copyright terms here when the 20-year public domain freeze here ended.  They’ve been spreading the word about the new arrivals to the public domain, and why that’s a good thing.  (In my advent calendar series, I’ve pointed to a few of the articles written about this; Lisa Gold’s blog post today is another such article, which also points to a few others.)

Various groups have also been quick to make works that have newly joined the public domain freely readable online.  HathiTrust opened access to over 40,000 works from 1923 today.  Also today, Project Gutenberg released a transcription of The Prophet they had ready to go for its first day in the US public domain; they’re also releasing other 1923 transcriptions.  At the Penn Libraries, where I work, a team led by Brigitte Burris is digitizing 1923 publications from our collections to share online.  A story by Peter Crimmins at WHYY has more information, and pictures, from our digitization work.

While 1923 may be making the biggest splash today, there’s other work also joining the public domain today in various places.  People in Europe and other countries with “life+70 years” copyright terms get works joining the public domain from authors who died in 1948.  (In the US, we’re also today getting works by authors who died that year that were not published prior to 2003.)  People in Canada and other countries maintaining “life+50 years” terms get works by authors who died in 1968.  Some of the relevant authors whose works are joining the public domain in these countries are mentioned in the Public Domain Review’s Class of 2019 feature.

As for me, here’s what I’m giving the world today:

  • A newly updated Creative Commons licensed guide for identifying public domain serial content.  I discussed this guide, when it was still in draft form, in a blog post last month.   Today’s update, now out of draft status, fixes some awkward sentences, says a little more about government publications, and removes references to 1923 copyrights, since they’ve now expired.  I hope folks find the guide useful, and I’d love to hear what you do with it, or if you have questions about it.
  • A grant to the public domain (via CC0 dedication) of any work I published in 2004 whose copyright is under my sole control.  (I typically do this every year on Public Domain Day for copyrights more than 14 years old, in recognition of the original term of copyright available in the United States.)
  • Links added to the advent calendar posts to online copies of the featured works.  They won’t all be linked today (it may take a while to find them all, and not all of them are online at the moment), but I’ll add the ones I can over the next few days, as well as creating or updating listings where appropriate for The Online Books Page.

And now that I’m done with the advent calendar, here’s a list of all of its posts and featured works:

  1. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
  2. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Cantata by Frances McCollin
  3. Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
  4. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” by Arthur Conan Doyle
  5. The Federal Reporter (1923 publications) by West Publishing
  6. “Barney Google” (fox-trot) by Billy Rose and Con Conrad
  7. New York Tribune (1923 issues)
  8. “Yes! We Have no Bananas” by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn
  9. Tagebücher by Theodor Herzl
  10. “The Road Away From Revolution” by Woodrow Wilson
  11. Washington and its Romance by Thomas Nelson Page
  12. Cane by Jean Toomer
  13. Safety Last! by Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, and Tim Whelan
  14. Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  15. “Keen” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  16. Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
  18. The Art Spirit by Robert Henri
  19. Souls for Sale (photoplay) by Rupert Hughes
  20. The Vanishing American by Zane Grey
  21. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” by Jimmie Cox
  22. A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
  23. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” by Thomas Chisholm and William Runyan
  24. The Night Before Christmas (recitation with music and drawings) by Hanna van Vollenhoven and Grace Drayton
  25. “Christmas Day at Sea” by Joseph Conrad
  26. Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward L. Bernays
  27. “The Invisible Monster” by Sonia Greene
  28. “Parisian Pierrot” by Noël Coward
  29. Success by A. A. Milne
  30. “In the Orchard” by Virginia Woolf
  31. New Hampshire by Robert Frost

Happy Public Domain Day!  We have lots to celebrate this year, and I’m thankful to everyone who’s helped make this celebration possible, and merrier. May we also have lots to celebrate every year hereafter!

 

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #31: New Hampshire by Robert Frost

…for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

So ends “Fire and Ice”, one of the more than forty poems included in Robert Frost‘s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection New Hampshire.  Frost’s short poem uses ice as a metaphor for hate, though I’ve frequently used ice– or, more precisely, freezing– to describe the stasis in the public domain in the US over the last twenty years, from my first Public Domain Day post in 2008 to more recent Public Domain Day posts like 2016’s “Freezes and Thaws”.

That freeze in the public domain has come with destruction as well.  Sometimes that’s been literal, as film stock, magnetic tapes, and brittle pages deteriorate, or as old publications not kept elsewhere are discarded.  Sometimes that destruction has been of memories and personal connections, as authors and those who knew them or read their newly published works die or fall silent.  Sometimes the destruction has been of creative opportunity, as those who wanted to build on existing works have been stymied by copyright restrictions even long after the authors of those works have passed on.

Not that New Hampshire in itself has been in any danger of disappearing. The famous poems in it, like “Fire and Ice”, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” will be remembered and recited for a long time to come.  But if those are the short hit singles, the collection as a whole is a fascinating double-album or more worth of poetry, with lots of longer, deeper cuts. From the opening title track, an eccentric ode to an eccentric state, to the final poem where birds cheerily occupy a burnt-out and abandoned farmstead, certain patterns recur among his rhythms: the stark landscape of northern New England, the cycles of nature and of human activity, and death, which stalks through many of the poems in both metaphorical and literal forms.

Even as New Hampshire, and collections that include it, stay in print, as a whole the collection hasn’t had the cultural impact that it could have.  Not only are websites prevented from posting many of its poems online (unlike those from his earlier books), but adaptations of its works have also been limited.  In an article on the upcoming arrivals to the US public domain in the January 2019 issue of Smithsonian, Glenn Fleishman notes how Frost’s estate kept Eric Whitacre from releasing a choral adaptation of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  There have been some authorized musical settings of Frost’s poems, but not many. I’ve enjoyed singing Randall Thompson’s 1959 setting of  “Stopping by Woods…” as part of his Frostiana suite, but I’d love to hear what Whitacre and other 21st-century composers could do with it.  Starting tomorrow, they’ll have their chance.

(A couple of copyright-nerd asides: It’s arguable that “Stopping by Woods…” is already in the public domain.  It was published in the March 7, 1923 issue of The New Republic before it appeared in New Hampshire, there’s no renewal for that magazine issue or that specific contribution, and the renewal for New Hampshire was filed in September 1951, at a time of 28-year copyright terms that were not rounded up to the end of the year. Given that, the book’s renewal may have been too late to cover the poem’s magazine publication.  But I can understand a composer not wanting to get into a long legal battle over this issue.  Also, note that the “January 2019” issue of Smithsonian was published in 2018, requiring Fleishman to remain circumspect about quoting from New Hampshire in his article.  Similarly, many periodical issues with cover dates in early 1924 were actually published in 1923, will end their copyright terms tomorrow with other 1923 publications, and will be eligible for posting online then.)

Twenty years ago, I was moderating a mailing list of people posting texts online who were eagerly awaiting each new year’s worth of books they could post.  The first year of the list included a discussion of copyrights on Frost’s books, misdirected (and later retracted) takedown notices from his rightsholders, and the prospects for posting New Hampshire in 1999.  There were people who had been able to meet Frost in person, and hear him read his poems, while he was still alive.

Many of the people in that conversation are gone now from the Net, or from the world.  Eric Eldred, who challenged 1998’s 20-year copyright extension all the way to the Supreme Court, moved overseas, and eventually his site, where he wanted to post New Hampshire and other works that had been due to enter the public domain, dropped off the Net.  (A mostly-functional snapshot of his site is preserved at Ibiblio.)  David Reed, one of the people who prepared Frost’s early books, and many others, for Project Gutenberg, died in 2009. Michael Hart, who founded Project Gutenberg, and who after the 1998 copyright extensions passed told me he wanted to post Winnie-the-Pooh and Gone With the Wind someday when they reached the public domain, died in 2011.  Before he died, though, he inspired enough interested volunteers to keep Project Gutenberg going and posting new texts. Tomorrow, those volunteers will have full access to the promised land of 1923 that Michael Hart didn’t get to reach.

And God willing, when tomorrow begins, Mary and I will greet the year 2019, and continue work we and others have been doing for more than 20 years, bringing the public domain to light through online publishing and cataloging, shedding light on the hidden public domain of unrenewed materials, and doing our best to ensure that new works keep joining the public domain here not just tomorrow, but every year after that, for many years to come.  And I’ll be thinking of the words Robert Frost published in 1923:

…I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

See you in the new year.


2019 update: Link to full text of New Hampshire, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #30: In the Orchard by Virginia Woolf

“The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” Willa Cather wrote in a preface to a 1936 collection of essays.  Many read her remark as referring to major changes in literary forms and styles underway in the early 1920s, particularly the rise of modernist and experimental literature.  We’ve already looked at Jean Toomer’s Cane, a 1923 novel using some of those new styles, in a previous calendar entry.  In that same year,  Virginia Woolf published two short stories still read today as key examples of modernist literature, employing stream-of-consciousness techniques to illuminate a slice of their main characters’ lives.  One of those stories will join the US public domain the day after tomorrow.  The other one is already there.

The story already in the public domain is “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”, which relates a shopping trip of the title character and the thoughts and memories she experiences while going out to buy gloves.  Much of what action exists in the story is internal or told in flashback, though the surface narration includes a “violent explosion” at the end whose nature is not made clear in the short story.  Woolf later reworked and expanded this short story into the book Mrs. Dalloway, which was published in 1925, and will remain under copyright in the US for a couple of years longer.

Mrs. Dalloway’s original 1923 short story, however, is already in the public domain.  It was first published in the July 1923 issue of the American literary magazine The Dial, and there was no copyright renewal filed either for the magazine issue or for the story.  (There was a renewal filed in 1953 for the 1925 book, but that renewal is too late to cover the 1923 story.)

“Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” takes place over a small portion of a day. “In the Orchard” features an even shorter slice of life: only about a second, when the main character lies in a chair outdoors on the verge of sleep, and then leaps up exclaiming “Oh, I shall be late for tea!” But as in Mrs. Dalloway’s story, the main point is not the outward action, but a depiction of all that goes on around her, and in her own thoughts.  Woolf’s shifts of perspective from Miranda lying in her chair to things happening above her and around her are reminiscent of a wide-scene painting or a cinematic pan and zoom, though the narrative relates a combination of sounds, sights and thoughts that a painting or a film can only partially convey.

“In the Orchard” was first published in the April 1923 issue of The Criterion, a British literary magazine.  Again, there’s no renewal for the magazine issue or for the short story.  But this story, unlike “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” is still under copyright in the US, at least for two more days.

Why the difference?  The reason is a trade agreement that the US made, and enacted into law, to exempt many works first published abroad from copyright formality requirements such as registration, renewal, and notice.  (I alluded to this exemption in a previous calendar entry.)  Eligible works were not only exempted from such requirements, but retroactively brought back into copyright, if they would still be under copyright as registered and renewed works.

The Copyright Office’s Circular 38A describes in detail the rules of eligibility for copyright restoration.  Here’s how they apply to these stories: Virginia Woolf was British, and her works were under copyright protection in Britain in 1996, when the copyright restorations went into effect.  So works of hers that were first published outside the US at least 30 days before their first US publication are eligible for restoration.  As I mentioned, The Criterion, where “In the Orchard” first appeared,  was published in the UK (and not, to my knowledge, in the US).  The first US publication of the story that I’m aware of, in the September 1923 issue of the American magazine Broom,  was more than 30 days after the April 1923 Criterion, so copyright restoration applies.  On the other hand, because “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”, was first published in the US magazine The Dial, that story is not eligible for copyright restoration.

In this case, the difference will be moot in two days, when “In the Orchard” joins “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the public domain at the completion of its full 95-year term.  If you haven’t read this story before, or aren’t sure you’d like its style of literature, you’ll have a good opportunity to check out this brief story then, for a little expenditure of time, and no expenditure of money.


We’ve almost reached the end of this Public Domain Day advent calendar.  If you’d like to continue reading about public domain works in the new year, though, I recommend checking out The Public Domain Review.  It regularly publishes essays about all manner of public domain works, both those newly arrived there and those that have been there for a while.  The authors of the essays are generally experts on the works they write about, and can also spend more time discussing the works and their contexts than I do here.  If you’re already a fan of the Public Domain Review, you may want to consider supporting it by buying some of its merchandise or making a donation.

One of that site’s regular features is an annual review of some of what’s coming into the public domain, both in the US and in other countries, in the coming year.  The latest in this series, Class of 2019, has just been posted, and includes a mention of the Woolf story featured in this post.


2019 update: Link to full text of “In the Orchard” as published in the September 1923 issue of Broom, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Blue Mountain Project

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #29: Success by A. A. Milne

I’ve been giving plays somewhat short shrift in this calendar so far. The only ones I’ve mentioned so far were noted in yesterday’s post as not actually joining the public domain in January.  So today I’ll discuss a play from 1923 that is joining the public domain, from a famous playwright of the time.

Many of us nowadays don’t usually think of A. A. Milne as a playwright, but up until 1923, he was largely known for his plays, and for his writing for  Punch.  Milne started contributing to that British humour magazine in 1903, and joined the staff as an assistant editor in 1906.  Before 1923 he had also published a few light novels (including the detective story The Red House Mystery and the satirical fairy tale Once on a Time).  He also wrote well over a dozen plays and screenplays, the main focus of his writing for several years after World War I ended.

Milne’s play Success, first published in 1923, was a more serious piece than some of his earlier work.  There’s a good summary of the play (in its 1926 version) in a 2012 Captive Reader blog post on his collection Four Plays.  The main character is a man who has followed the urgings of people around him into a career that is increasingly successful in the eyes of the world.  But when he meets a friend and a former love from his distant past, he regrets the path he’s taken, and dreams of the life he could have had if he hadn’t pursued the “success” the world recognizes.   The play’s retitling when it opened in New York, Give Me Yesterday, is an apt summation of its emotional focus.  So are lines like this one the main character delivers: “Success! It closes in on you […] I tried to get free – I did try, Sally – but I couldn’t. It had got me. It closes in on you.”

I suspect that Milne in 1923 had no idea that the same thing was about to happen to him and his family, on a much larger scale and more suddenly.  The following year, he published in Punch some poems about his young son Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals.  A book of those poems, titled When We Were Very Young, was published the same year and became an international best-seller, with 50,000 copies sold in its first two months on the market.  Two years later, another book made those stuffed animals the main characters, and that book, Winnie-the-Pooh, quickly became an even bigger best-seller, and remains one of the best-known and best-selling children’s books more than 90 years later.

Like his protagonist in Success, Milne felt like that the success of his children’s books had closed him in, and that he could not escape.  In 2017, Danuta Kean wrote an article in the Guardian on a reissue of Milne’s 1939 memoir, which had been aptly titled It’s Too Late Now.  Kean quotes Milne as saying “I wanted to escape from [children’s books]…  as I have always wanted to escape.  In vain. England expects the writer, like the cobbler, to stick to his last.”  Milne’s ironic fate also affected his son Christopher Robin.  Kean quotes him as saying that his father “had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”

Personally, I’ll be glad to see Milne’s children’s books join the US public domain over the next few years.  But in the public domain now, readers of Milne will have the chance to focus on the kinds of works that he wanted to be known for, before his wildly successful children’s books overwhelmed him (and his son).  And once Success joins those works in the public domain three days from now, readers may get from it a better sense of the emotional price paid for those later books.


PS:  Alexandra Alter has an informative new article in The New York Times  on the impending new arrivals to the American public domain, and their significance.  It’s good to read yourself, or to share with other people who might not be aware of what all the fuss is about.  (And I’m not just saying that because I’m one of the people mentioned in the article.)  Alter’s article mentions a number of works and authors that are also featured in this calendar, as well as some I won’t have time to discuss this month that you might be interested in as well.


2019 update: Link to full text of Success, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #28: Parisian Pierrot by Noël Coward

One of the hits of the 1923 London theater season was the musical revue London Calling!  It was the first publicly performed musical by Noël Coward, who starred in the 1923 production alongside Gertrude Lawrence, and who continued to write and perform theatrically for nearly 50 years afterwards.  With additional scripting by Ronald Jeans, additional music by Philip Braham and others, and some tap-dance choreography by a young Fred Astaire, the revue strung together a couple of dozen songs, dance routines, and sketches.  One innovative segment involved a stereoscopic shadowgraph, a then-new form of three-dimensional display that audiences viewed through special glasses.

I’d like to be able to say that the show will be in the US public domain a few days from now, like the other 1923 works I’ve been featuring in the calendar.  But I’m afraid it won’t be– at least, not in its entirety.  The problem is that performing a work in public doesn’t actually start its copyright term under US copyright law.  Up until 1977, registering a work or publishing it did start the term, but public performance of a dramatic or musical work doesn’t itself count as publication for the purposes of US copyright.  That’s why, for instance, the play Peter Pan is still under copyright in the US; even though it opened in 1904, its script wasn’t published until 1928, and that’s when its 95-year copyright term started.

It’s not clear exactly when the US copyright clock started running for London Calling! as a complete show.  It does not appear to have been registered as a play in 1923, and I haven’t found a book in the WorldCat catalog that consists of the entire show, other than some very recent publications.  Various parts of the show have been published separately over time, though.  Collections of Coward’s sketches have been published at various times, some of which include the sketch scripts from the show.  The individual songs have also been published as sheet music at different times since 1923.

One of the better-known songs of the production is “Parisian Pierrot”, written by Coward for Lawrence to sing in a “Pierrot” clown costume. The singer laments that while you may be “society’s hero” on the outside, on the inside you can have “spirits at zero”, knowing that even though “the rue de la Paix is under your sway” at present, “your star will be falling as soon as the clock goes ’round”.  Written in second-person, the song was one of Coward’s first hits, performable with a variety of singers and contexts.  Coward himself sung the song on a 1936 recording, and Julie Andrews also performed it in Star!, a 1968 film on the life of Lawrence.

With a 1923 copyright registration that was renewed in 1950, “Parisian Pierrot” joins the public domain in the US four days from now, along with some, but not all, of the other songs from London Calling!  For instance, the copyright term for “You Were Meant For Me”, another hit song from the show, appears to begin in 1924, so that song joins the public domain here one year after “Parisian Pierrot” does.

Because musical revues tend to be loose assemblages, we’re not missing out as much getting the show into the public domain piecewise as we would if it were the sort of tightly integrated dramatic production that more recent musicals tend to be. Still, I could see value in a knowledge base containing publishing history and copyright data of theatrical productions generally, so that we could determine more readily when such works join the public domain in whole or in part.

I’m a bit busy myself with a serials copyright knowledge base to take on drama as well. But if anyone else is doing it or plans to take it on, I’d love to hear about it.


2019 update: Link to piano-vocal sheet music for “Parisian Pierrot”, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Lester H. Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #27: The Invisible Monster by Sonia Greene

Visitors to newsstands in early 1923 encountered a number of significant American magazines for the first time. They could pick up the first issues of Time, with brief, breezy dispatches relating the week’s news from around the world.  (Issues of that magazine from 1923 and some years afterward are already in the public domain, due to a lack of copyright renewals.)  Or they might find dispatches from stranger, creepier worlds in another new magazine: Weird Tales, a pulp fiction magazine featuring stories of horror, fantasy, and what in a few years would be called “science fiction”.  A number of iconic genre characters such as Robert E. Howard’s Conan, C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu made their mass-media debut in the magazine.

It took a while for Weird Tales to hit its stride, but there are some notable stories in its first issues, many of which will be joining the public domain five days from now.  (Much of the content published in Weird Tales was not copyright-renewed, but most of the 1923 issues were.)  One tale that caught my interest, as much for its circumstances as for its content, is a story by Sonia Greene titled “The Invisible Monster” in the November 1923 issue (and called “The Horror of Martin’s Beach” in some later reprints).  The story features a strange sea-beast that sailors find, kill, and bring to shore, unknowingly incurring the wrath of the beast’s bigger and fiercer mother.  Able to hypnotize humans so they they both fail to see her and lose control over their body movements, the mother-beast exacts her revenge on the sailors and nearby beachgoers, dragging them to watery deaths.

The story may remind a reader today of stories with similar elements like   Beowulf and Jaws.  But it also reads like a Lovecraft story.  That’s not a coincidence: Greene and Lovecraft, who were both active in the world of amateur journalism, had met not long before.  In 1922, Greene visited Lovecraft in New England and suggested the idea for the story while they walked along the beach.  According to L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Lovecraft, Greene wrote up an outline of the story that night, and Lovecraft was so enthusiastic about the story that Greene spontaneously kissed him, the first kiss he had had since infancy.

Thus began a romance that would eventually result in the marriage of Greene and Lovecraft in 1924, as well as the publication of the story in Weird Tales in 1923.  It’s pretty clear that Lovecraft had some hand in the story that ran there. At the time, a fair bit of his income came from unsigned editing and revising of others’ stories, he appears to have shepherded it into print at Weird Tales, and some of the vocabulary in this story is distinctly Lovecraftian.  Some commenters have therefore not only added Lovecraft as an author of the story, but also credited him as the primary author, or even speculated, as de Camp does, that he wrote the whole thing from Greene’s “mere outline”.  However, both Greene and Lovecraft were experienced writers, and knowing both the tendency of attributions to gravitate to more famous writers, and of women’s writing contributions to be marginalized, I’m inclined to keep crediting Greene as the author of this story, as she is credited in the Weird Tales issue.

Sadly, Greene and Lovecraft’s relationship would soon grow strained.  Beset with financial woes and health problems after their marriage, they spent much of their time apart, were living in different cities by 1925, and by the end of the 1920s had divorced.  Lovecraft’s relationship with his genre has also been increasingly strained.  He was deeply racist, and while his stories have had a significant influence on fantasy and horror literature, many of them are also inherently infused with fear and contempt for non-white races and foreigners.  That eventually led the administrators of the World Fantasy Awards, which had used his likeness on their trophies since their establishment in 1975, to redesign the award without him in 2017.

Some writers, though, have found ways to recognize the contributions of Lovecraft and other early horror writers to the genre while still engaging unflinchingly with their racism.  One work doing this that I particularly like is Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country, where the main characters have to deal with both the forces of supernatural horror and the forces of Jim Crow– and the latter are often scarier than the former.

Ruff manages to rework flaws in Lovecraft’s 20th-century work into strengths for the story he wants to tell, and combines it with other Lovecraftian elements to make a sort of narrative alloy well suited for the 21st century.  Once “The Invisible Monster” and other stories from the first year of Weird Tales join the public domain next week, other writers will also have the chance to take their flaws and strengths and make other wonderful things with them.  I don’t know what will result, but I’d love to see what people try.

 

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #26: Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward L. Bernays

“Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including in the United States.” That was the lead finding of Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report, “Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy”.  2018, in turn, has brought further revelations of how various companies, organizations and countries have manipulated social media and other Internet sites through botnets, hidden funding, astroturfing, algorithmic manipulation, and “fake news” (both in the sense of fabricated stories and in the sense of discrediting unwelcome news by calling it “fake”).

The effectiveness of the Internet in spreading propaganda and manipulating citizens is a stark contrast to early utopian visions of the Internet that assumed it would be a natural fount of knowledge and an inevitable promoter of freedom.  But it’s not a surprise to those who have studied the history of other mass media. In various times and places, newspapers, radio, films, and television have been used to spread either knowledge and encouragement, or ignorance and fear.  Neither of these outcomes is inevitable. Those who understand the effective use of mass media can promote either of them, or can learn how to defend themselves against manipulation and support trustworthy communication.

Therefore, it’s worth taking a look at what pioneers in the field known as “public relations” say about their craft, and how it can be used to shape public opinion for good or for ill.  In 1923, public relations was a new and growing field of specialization.  One of its key figures was Edward Bernays, who that year published his first book on the subject, Crystallizing Public Opinion.

Bernays’s book repeatedly cites Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book Public Opinion, a work that introduces the concept of the “manufacture of consent” through mass media.  Lippmann’s book, now in the public domain, is an influential piece of analysis; Bernays’ book refocuses many of Lippmann’s ideas (and those of others) into more of a how-to manual.

One of Bernays’s key recommendations is to look beyond the expected ways of communicating information.  Companies had been advertising for a long time, just as governments had long issued official proclamations and publications.  But getting a product or idea into the news, and talked about by the public, could easily be a more effective method of promotion.  A subtler, indirect suggestion of a viewpoint could persuade people who might resist or ignore a direct, obvious promotion.  Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, also notes the importance of the “unconscious” mind and the ego in people’s decision-making.

There are, of course, more or less ethical ways of doing the sort of indirect publicity that Bernays discusses.  In this book, however, Bernays shows more concerns about the ends of publicity than the means.  “The only difference between ‘propaganda’ and ‘education,’ really,” he writes, “is in the point of view. The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda.”  It’s seductively easy to move from that idea to an “ends justify the means” approach to public manipulation.

And not all of Bernays’s ends were good.  Some of his campaigns promoted health, racial harmony, and peace.  But he also worked for cigarette companies, particularly on campaigns to increase smoking among women, at a time when doctors were clearly establishing smoking’s links to ill health.  In the 1950s, he also promoted the interests of United Fruit against the government of Guatemala, which would eventually be overthrown in 1954 by a CIA-led coup.

Even if there are problems with who Bernays worked for, though, it’s still worth reading what Bernays has to say about how he worked,  to understand the techniques better, and where appropriate, how to counter them.  Some of what he says in 1923 seems eerily applicable today. For instance:

“Domination to-day is not a product of armies or navies or wealth or policies. It is a domination based on the one hand upon accomplished unity, and on the other hand upon the fact that opposition is generally characterized by a high degree of disunity.”

It’s not hard to trace a line from that idea to the covert social media influence campaigns in recent elections, where government agencies  simultaneously ran accounts provoking opposing sides of hot-button political issues, to foment disunity, create distractions, and discourage voting and meaningful political participation.

The US copyright on Crystallizing Public Opinion ends six days from now.  If having it more widely available and readable helps Americans to better understand and remediate an unhealthy social media environment, it will be an especially welcome (and overdue) addition to the public domain.


2019 update: Link to full text of Crystallizing Public Opinion, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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