In yesterday’s advent calendar post, I noted that in the 1920s, “newspapers and the comic strips that appeared in them were considered ephemeral, and copyright renewal was very rare”. One newspaper that represents an exception to this rule is the New York Tribune, which now has active copyright renewals for all of its issues from January 1, 1923 onward. All of its 1923 issues will be joining the public domain 25 days from now.
As I see it, the Tribune‘s most distinctive additions to the public domain in January will be its columns and features. Those included regular pieces by Don Marquis, including new dispatches from his characters archy and mehitabel. The Tribune also ran serialized fiction, as did many other newspapers then. From July through September of 1923 it ran weekly installments of a new adventure of Hugh Lofting‘s Doctor Dolittle, one that would not be published in book form until 1948 (as Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake).
No other daily newspaper has copyright renewal filings for complete issues in 1923, except for the New York Herald (which merged with the Tribune in 1924 to form the New York Herald-Tribune). Our periodical renewal inventory notes renewals for 1923 New York Times magazine and book review sections, but not for complete Times issues that year. There are some renewals for 1923 contributions to a few other newspapers, including a few of Harry C. Peterson‘s articles on California’s Gold Rush days that ran in the Oakland Tribune, and potboiler stories by Arthur Somers Roche that ran in the Elmira Telegram. But overall, nearly everything published in American newspapers in 1923 (outside of New York’s Herald and Tribune) is already in the public domain.
I’ll be happy to see the New York Tribune and Herald available for digitization in January. But even now we could be reading digitized news stories from 1923 in other public domain newspapers, and follow the further revelations in the Teapot Dome Scandal after President Harding’s sudden death in office, or read American coverage of the end of the Irish Civil War. We could follow day-to-day the pennant races of the Yankees and the Giants, who would eventually face each other in the 1923 World Series, through New York’s other newspapers now in the public domain. Right now, though, there’s not a whole lot of newspaper content freely readable online from 1923, compared to what’s available from 1922.
The main effect of Public Domain Day 2019 for American newspapers, then, is not so much putting a lot of 1923 newspaper content in the public domain, but making it much easier to know that 1923 newspaper content is in the public domain. Once January 1 arrives, you can safely assume that the contents of any US newspaper with a 1923 dateline is free to digitize, share, and adapt. Before then, you may have to do a lot more research to be sure of that. So there’s less of it online.
The draft guide for determining the copyright status of serial issues that I announced yesterday is meant to make it easier to tell whether something of interest in a newspaper, magazine, journal, or other serial from the mid-20th century is public domain. Of those types of serials, newspapers will still be among the most challenging to copyright-clear, since many of them routinely included reprints from other publications or syndicated content. But original news articles, which are often of the most historically interesting parts of newspapers, should be significantly easier to clear. And I haven’t seen systematic renewals in the Catalog of Copyright Entries of syndicated comics or photos published before the 1930s, so many 1920s newspaper issues might not be that hard to clear in their entirety. Magazines, which tend to rely less on reprints and syndications, should be less difficult to clear, and journals, which typically contain completely original articles, will probably be easier still.
I’m glad that the upcoming Public Domain Day will give us access to more of American newspaper memory, both through the outright expiration of copyright, and through putting another year’s worth of newspapers past the easy “bright line” for determining public domain status. But I also want to make it easier to identify and bring back to light public domain newspapers and other serial content well past 1923. There’s a lot to remember over the last 95 years, and much that can be forgotten over that length of time.