Invitation to participate in a new project: Help open journals’ deep backfiles

As I’ve noted here previously, there’s a wealth of serial content published in the 20th century that’s in the public domain, but not yet freely available online, often due to uncertainty about its copyright (and the resulting hesitation to digitize it).  Thanks to IMLS-supported work we did at Penn, we’ve produced a complete inventory of serials from the first half of the 20th century that still have active copyright renewals associated with them. And I’ve noted that there was far more serial material without active copyright, as late as the 1960s or even later.  We’ve also produced a guide to determining whether particular serial content you may be interested in is in the public domain.

Now that we’ve spent a lot of time surveying what is still in copyright though, it’s worth turning more focused attention to serial content that isn’t in copyright, but still of interest to researchers.  One way we can identify journals whose older issues (sometimes known as their “deep backfiles”) are still of interest to researchers and libraries is to see which ones are included in packages that are sold or licensed to libraries.   Major vendors of online journals publish spreadsheets of their backfile offerings, keyed by ISSN.  And now, thanks to an increasing amount of serial information in Wikidata (including links to our serials knowledge base) it’s possible to systematically construct inventories of serials in these packages that include, or might include, public domain and other openly accessible content.

We’ve now done that, for packages from some of the big online journal publishers (as of today, including Elsevier, SAGE, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley).  We’ve also included inventories for the JSTOR journal platform, which has deep backfiles of sought-after journals from many publishers.  The inventories can be found here, and they include information we’ve gathered about first copyright renewals, when known, and also about free online volumes and issues that we know about.

Many of the journals in our inventory tables have “Unknown” under the “first renewal” column.  That’s where you can help.  If you find journals of interest to you in any of these tables, you can research their copyrights and send us what you find out.  Thanks to our prior inventory work, the process can be boiled down to a few basic steps:

  1. Find a journal of interest to you in one of the tables.
  2. If its first renewal is reported in the table as “Unknown”, look to see if it’s mentioned in our “first copyright renewals for periodicals” inventory.  (While most journals listed there are now linked with Wikidata, those that are not may still report “Unknown” in our tables.  We’re trying to fill those in as soon as we can manage.)
  3. If you don’t find the journal listed there, then search for it in the Copyright Office’s registered works database.  (We describe how to search that database in Appendix A of our “Determining copyright status of serial issues” guide.)
  4. Use the “contact us” link in the journal’s row in our inventory table to go to a form where you can tell us the earliest renewed item you found for the journal in steps 2 and/or 3.  Also tell us, if you know, whether the journal was published in the United States, or only elsewhere.   (Works not published in the US might be exempt from copyright renewal requirements.)

After you send this information, we’ll update our knowledge base and tables accordingly (possibly after doing our own verification).  You can also use the “contact us” form to inform us of free online issues we don’t yet mention, or contribute more detailed copyright information about a particular journal if you’re so inclined.  All copyright and listings data we publish will be put in the public domain via a CC0 dedication.

If you’re willing and able to contribute information for a large number of serials, there may be more efficient ways for us to exchange information, and I invite you to get in touch with me.  Also, if time permits, we can do our own research on serials that you’re interested in, so if you find a favorite in the tables and aren’t confident about researching it yourself, just follow its “contact us” link, and click on the “submit” button near the bottom of the form that comes up.

All of the journal providers mentioned above (none of whom have had any involvement with this project to date) also offer extensive archives of content that’s still under copyright.   Their newer journals from the era of automatic copyright renewals (1964 and later) aren’t generally represented in the tables we currently provide, which focus on the mostly-older content that’s openly or potentially openly available.  You can follow the links on the provider names above to get information on the complete offerings of those providers available for subscription or purchase.

Our Deep Backfile project is very much a work in progress, but I think it’s far enough along now to be useful for folks interested in finding and sharing information about serials in the public domain of research interest. I’m looking forward to hearing others’ thoughts, questions, and suggestions, and to making our knowledge base more populated and useful.

 

 

Posted in citizen librarians, copyright, open access, serials | Leave a comment

Everybody’s Library Questions: Copyright and advertisements

My previous post answered a reader question about how to determine whether a newspaper (or other serial issue) was under copyright or not.  (More details about the process can be found in our guide “Determining copyright status of serial issues”.)  Some people still wonder about the ads, though.  Here are some questions about those from Nena Ceg of Project Mindshare.  (Steve Jones also asked similar questions):

“Where can I find copyright information about illustrations from magazine ads (pre-1964)? Are illustrations in those ads in the public domain? They required a copyright notice from the illustrator, or the illustrator´s signature was enough?”

The short answer: Yes, ads, and the illustrations in them, can have their own copyrights, just like issue contributions and illustrations can have their own copyright.  But very few pre-1964 US ads still have active copyright; and research and library digitization projects often don’t have to worry about them.  Those wanting to use magazine ads commercially might need to take more care, not just for copyright reasons but also for trademark reasons.  For reliable legal guidance, you should talk to your lawyer (and I’m not one).

Here’s a longer answer with more details:

Finding ad-related copyrights

Copyrights for ads that appear in serials might be registered and renewed in one of three categories: in Contributions to Periodicals (which is where stories and articles in serials would also be registered and renewed); in Artwork (for advertising illustrations); or possibly in Commercial Prints and Labels.  The Catalog of Copyright Entries (which runs up to 1978, covering renewals for publications through 1950) published different sections for each category, and the sections can be examined and searched online.  (The link above goes to a page with more details.) All categories in the Copyright Office’s online database (which runs from 1978 onward, covering renewals for publications from 1950 and later) can be searched at once.  (Note that copyrights from 1964 and later either automatically renewed or didn’t have to be renewed, which is why we’re discussing pre-1964 ads here.)

There are a few ads renewed as contributions to periodicals, but not many that I’ve found so far.  In our copyright information page for the New York Post, where we’ve filled in details for early renewed contributions, you’ll see some ads for Schenley Distillers among the renewals. (The first one is dated May 15, 1936.)  Some  ads featuring the electric utility mascot Reddy Kilowatt were also renewed as periodical contributions– the earliest ones I’ve found ran in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1934.  I have a hard time recalling any other ad series before 1950 that had significant numbers of renewals.  Since we list the first contribution renewals for serials in our copyright inventory, though, if an ad was renewed as a contribution to a periodical appearing in that inventory, the periodical should be shown with a first-renewal date for contributions on or before the date of the ad.  (And in some cases, as with the New York Post, we also list contribution renewals after the first one, so you can look for a renewal for the ad in that list if it says it includes all active renewals up to the ad’s date.)

It’s also possible that images in the ads (or of the ads) may have renewed copyrights.  But, as with other images in periodicals, that’s pretty rare, and in our decision guide, we consider it highly unlikely unless they have a copyright notice of their own (as some did). We describe in Appendix C of our copyright determination guide how to search for copyrights of images.  You will find a few ad-related images in the sources listed there, including the original cartoon image of Reddy Kilowatt, copyrighted in 1926 and renewed in 1954.  Search for “Reddy” in Project Gutenberg’s transcription of artwork renewals from 1951 to 1959, and he comes right up.

Some other well-known cartoon characters that made their debut after 1923 also may have active copyrights, either from artwork renewals or from copyright renewals of the publications or films in which they first appeared.  (Many of the best-known characters, franchises, and syndicates with active copyrights are mentioned in Appendix D of our guide.)  But beyond Reddy Kilowatt, active renewed copyrights in characters specifically created for advertising appear to be rare, at least in the renewals I’ve looked at (primarily for publications up to 1950).

Advertising matter also could get copyrighted in the “Commercial Prints and Labels” category.  Unlike with contributions and artwork, no one that I know of has yet produced searchable files or databases for commercial prints renewals in the Catalog of Copyright Entries.  (They are in the Copyright Office’s searchable registered works database when that picks up in 1978.)  But there aren’t that many commercial prints renewals, so it could be convenient and not too hard to produce searchable files for the early active ones, like Project Gutenberg has done for other artwork renewals.  You can still look through them online through the Catalog of Copyright Entries scans, but for now you’ll have to look at the page images of the scans.  I’ve looked over many of the Commercial Prints renewals pages, and have found a number of labels and what appear to be standalone posters, but have had a hard time finding anything in this category that appears to be a magazine or newspaper ad.  (If you find any, though, let me know.)

Copyright, fair use, and trademark

I’m inclined myself not to worry about searching for ad copyright renewals unless I find a copyright notice for the ad.  (An artist signature by itself is not a copyright notice, though it can provide a useful name to search on if you’re inclined to do so.)  I’m not particularly worried both because copyright renewals for ads are rare in my experience (as noted above), and also because even if there are active copyrights in some of the advertising matter, a good case for fair use can be made for the sort of uses we tend to make of them in libraries and universities.  Our digitization is noncommercial; it’s typically for purposes of study, research, or commentary; the ads are generally not the primary focus of interest for the content we’re digitizing; and there is usually little or no market now for the ads themselves (as opposed to the products the ads were designed to sell).  Appendix E of our copyright determination guide has more notes on the use of materials that might still be under copyright.

If I were contemplating more commercial use of an ad, though, such as selling prints or T-shirts, or including them in promotions, I’d want to be more careful both to check the copyrights, and also to ensure that I wasn’t using trademarks improperly.  Although copyrights expire after a set time period, trademarks (including brand names, slogans, logos, and other distinctive imagery associated with a brand) can last indefinitely as long as their owner keeps them in use, with some still going strong after more than a century.

It’s not against the law to simply reproduce a trademark, but it can be illegal to present it in a manner that creates confusion or misleads a consumer.  For instance, if I reproduced a public domain ad for Coca-Cola in a newspaper that I scanned and put online, readers would not normally think that my scan was sponsored by Coca-Cola, or indeed had any direct connection with the company.  But if I placed that same ad prominently on a vending machine that dispensed bottles of Pepsi, thirsty customers might think they were buying a soda different from the one they actually got.  That could lead to legal troubles that I wouldn’t have from simply reproducing the newspaper.

Similar problems could result if I sold T-shirts or posters with a company logo or other trademark that customers thought was created or endorsed by that company.  For this reason, Disney may retain control over clothing featuring Disney characters even after copyrights for the older characters start expiring a few years from now. They can’t use their character trademarks to stop all reproductions or creative uses of copyright-expired characters, but since they’ve registered trademarks for the use of many of those characters in branded clothing, and continue to sell character-themed clothes, they’d have good arguments that, say, many unlicensed Mickey Mouse-themed hats or T-shirts would be confused for approved Disney products.

The long and short of it

In summary, then, I believe serial digitization projects can clear copyrights for ads in periodicals pretty much the same way that they clear copyrights for other material in periodicals.  The instructions we have in our copyright determination guide should work for them, as far as I’m aware.  Remember, though, that I am not a lawyer, and certainly not your lawyer, and you’re best off consulting one if you want more assurance about the legal soundness of your reproducing or otherwise using other people’s ads.  I also have not had as much experience myself with digitization of serials as others have.  Comments are open below (for now), and I’d be very happy to hear from people with more expertise or relevant experience.

 

Posted in copyright, serials | 2 Comments

Everybody’s Library Questions: Newspaper copyrights, notices, and renewals

Because I blog about  copyrights for serials, I occasionally get questions in comments to my posts about determining what exactly is copyrighted in those serials.  I’ve been slow to answer them in the comments threads, partly because some of them get a bit complicated to answer there.  So instead, I’ll answer them in posts of their own, so I can spend a bit more time on them, and so that others can more easily make their own comments.

Below I respond to one of the questions asked in a comment to my earlier post “Why pay for what’s free? Finding open access and public domain articles”.  While I’m answering these questions to the best of my knowledge, please keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, and should not be relied on for legal advice.  Much of what I say below is based on my guide “Determining copyright status of serial issues”, which I recommend for folks who want to know more details.

In a comment to my earlier post, Steve Jones asks in part

“When I look at an newspaper I can never find a copyright notice on them? Do they require them? For instance the Dec 8th 1941 Minneapolis Star Journal…. Is [it] copyrighted? Can I republish a newspaper article in a book? Could the Newspaper file a copyright later, say at the end of the year? If I want to use it in a book do I have to pay[?]”

Prior to 1989, all US publications, newspapers included, had to have copyright notices on them in order to be copyrighted. Publishing an issue without such a notice would normally put it into the public domain.  (There are some exceptions to this rule for inadvertent omission or unauthorized publication, but those generally wouldn’t come into play for an established newspaper in the 1940s.)

Not all newspapers published with copyright notices. (Some may have figured that no one else would bother to copy their material until it was old news, for instance.)  Newspapers that did publish copyright notices put them in various places, but the most common places were the front page, particularly near the newspaper title (where it appears in recent issues of The New York Times) or the bottom of the page (where it appears in recent issues of the Philadelphia Inquirer), or in a “masthead” section that gives basic information about the paper’s editors, publishers, subscription details, and so on.  The masthead section could be put in various places, but common locations included page 1, page 2, the last page, and the editorial page.  (Magazines often printed their mastheads on their contents page.)

I don’t have easy access to any 1941 issues of the Minneapolis Star Journal, so I don’t know if they had copyright notices in them or not.  (They can be quite small.  Both the Times and Inquirer issues I looked at have them in smaller type than the rest of the pages they’re on.)  Before you determine that a serial issue you’re interested in lacked a copyright notice, make sure the copy you’re looking at has all of the pages that originally appeared in the issue (including the cover, in the case of magazines that had them).  An omitted or cut-off page might be where the  copyright notice had appeared.   A transcription of a newspaper issue that doesn’t include page images may omit things like the original copyright notices.

Let’s suppose, though, that there was a copyright notice in the December 8, 1941 issue of the Minneapolis Star Journal.  If so, the newspaper would have been copyrighted initially.  However, as with other US publications before 1964, that copyright had to be renewed in its 28th year, or it would expire.  Looking up this title in my first renewals inventory, I see that there was no such renewal (either for issues or contributions) mentioned there for that publication, and since all publications with renewed issues prior to 1950 should be represented there, I can conclude that the newspaper issue’s copyright has now expired.

(While newspapers didn’t necessarily have to register their copyrights immediately, they did have to renew promptly 28 years from the start of the copyright– and that copyright would have started no later than the date of publication, even if registration was delayed.  So if a 1941 copyright was not renewed by the end of 1969, its former owner generally couldn’t go back later and try to renew it retroactively.)

Given that, you should be able to republish articles from a 1941 issue of the Minneapolis Star Journal in a US-published book(*) without permission or payment, as long as the articles in question originated in that paper.  (If they’re reprinted or syndicated from elsewhere, that articles might still have copyrights based on their publication elsewhere. But newspapers generally will include a copyright or reprint notice in those cases.)

Besides reprinted articles, there might be other parts of a newspaper that might still be under copyright even if the issue as a whole is not.  Major syndicates such as King Features and United Features were renewing copyrights to their comic strips routinely by this point, so any of their comics that ran in the December 8, 1941 issue of the Minneapolis Star Journal might still have active copyrights.

Newspapers, like many other periodicals, also had ads, which both Steve Jones and another commentator asked about.  It is possible for ads, or the images in ads, to also have their own copyrights.  But it’s quite rare for those copyrights to be renewed, and depending on what you’re doing, you might not have to get permission to reproduce a newspaper page even if it does have copyrighted advertising material in it.  In my next post, I’ll discuss ads in periodicals, and how one can research or respond to their copyrights, if they have any.

(* My answer in this post only concerns US copyright law.  Copyright law works differently in other countries, and some countries will keep something under copyright longer than the US will.  If this might be an issue for you, I recommend consulting an expert on international copyright laws.)

Posted in copyright, serials | Leave a comment

More and better copyright data online for serials and books

It’s getting easier over time to find and use data on copyrights, and thereby to find and make use of materials in the public domain.  Here’s a quick update on what’s new and what’s coming, in my projects and elsewhere.

1. My inventory of first renewals for serials is now completely updated to reflect that all 1923 publications are now in the US public domain (as of this past January). All the copyright renewals for publications from 1923 and earlier that were recorded in my inventory are now gone, and many serials from this list therefore have later “first active renewal” dates, or are shown to no longer have any active copyright renewals.  So you’ll be able to clear copyright quickly for more serial issues.  (A number of major serial archives have now opened access to their 1923 issues– HathiTrust did so back in January, and JSTOR  opened 1923 for many of their journals earlier this month.  With the information in our inventory, though, you can often go substantially farther.)

2. As the result of moving our serials inventory past 1923, we now have a complete set of issue and contribution renewals recorded for 1924 in the various serial information pages linked from the inventory.  Come 2020 (just over 6 months from now!) we hope all of those renewed copyrights will expire, and at that point we plan to delete these renewals from our serial copyright JSON files (since the main purpose of those files is to aid with copyright clearance, and renewals for expired copyrights would just get in the way for that).  However, I can imagine that someone doing work in publishing history or literary analysis might be interested in those renewals.  If anyone’s interested in collecting or analysing all the 1924 renewals for serial issues and contributions, let me know and we can discuss ways to best make that data available for you.  (It’ll also be possible to extract them from our copyright data on Github after we do our July data update, and before 2020.)

3. Besides recording all active renewals for 1924 serial contributions, we’ve also recorded renewals for contributions from 1925 and 1926 that were filed before the middle of 1953.  Because Project Gutenberg has searchable  files that record contribution renewals made after mid-1953, and the Copyright Office has a searchable database for contribution renewals made after the dates covered in those files, it is now possible to find all active contribution renewals through text searches, without having to slowly work your way through page scans for some years like you did before.  (You still might have to look through page scans for issue renewals for some years, but those renewals were filed under the titles of the serial, making them relatively easy to find for a given serial you’re interested in.  Contribution renewals were typically filed under author, making it hard to find all the contribution renewals that existed for a particular serial for some years.)  I’ve updated our guide “Determining copyright status of serial issues” to reflect the more streamlined clearance process that’s now possible with these searches.

We’re not the only ones making copyright information easier to find and work with online.  I’m happy to report that the New York Public Library has just received a grant from IMLS to create a database of published books from the US Copyright Office’s Catalog of Copyright Entries as well.  (Disclosure: I’ll be one of the advisers for that project.) Hopefully, I’ll have updates here before long about what this project is making available, and what folks can do with it.

What else is coming up?  Well, for over a year now we’ve had a complete inventory of serials that had renewals filed for them before 1978. But there a lot of older serials of interest are interested in that aren’t in that renewal, either because no renewals were filed for them, or the earliest renewal was filed after 1977.  Having records for more of those serials in our inventory would be useful, to make them easier for libraries to digitize and researchers to use.  I hope to report soon about some ways we can report on large serial sets of particular interest to libraries and researchers from the data in our inventory and elsewhere.  In the meantime, if there’s a serial that published between 1924 and 1963 you’re particularly interested in, and it’s not already in our inventory, let me know about it and I’ll see what I can find out about its copyrights, or lack of them.

I’ve also been getting questions from time to time related to copyrights and public domain determination for serials and other works.  I’ll be starting to answer some of those questions in upcoming blog posts.  Look for the first of these shortly!

 

Posted in copyright, online books, open access, serials | Leave a comment

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!

 

Posted in copyright, open access, sharing | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in adventcalendar | Leave a comment