Washington, DC, where I’m going for a conference today, is the source of a lot of public domain material. As noted in an earlier post, “works of the United States government”, regardless of their age, are not subject to copyright protection. As explained on this government website, those works include any work by a federal employee or official that’s part of their official duties. For instance, when the President of the United States makes a speech to Congress, or issues an official proclamation, that’s a government work, and it’s not copyrighted. But if the President publishes a novel while in the White House, that novel would be copyrightable, since writing novels is not part of the President’s job.
Likewise, once Presidents leave office, anything they write is copyrightable, even if it’s the sort of thing they might have written or delivered while they occupied the White House. That’s why Woodrow Wilson’s article “The Road Away From Revolution” is still under US copyright, at least for the next 22 days. He might well have delivered it as a speech if he were President, but by 1923, when it was published, he was a private citizen. The piece was copyrighted, and his widow renewed the copyright in 1950.
The piece shows Wilson uneasy with the state of the world after he left office. “The world has been made safe for democracy,” he writes, “but democracy has not yet made the world safe against irrational revolution”. The revolution he specifically names is the 1917 revolution in Russia, which by 1923 had ended up with the Bolsheviks firmly in power, and establishing the Soviet Union at the end of 1922. But Wilson is also concerned that the revolutionaries may have had a point in their condemnation of capitalism. “Is it not,” he asks, “too true that capitalists have often seemed to regard the men whom they used as mere instruments of profit… legitimate to exploit with as slight cost to themselves as possible, either of money or sympathy?”
Looking back, I wonder if Wilson was implicitly rebuking his successor in office, who campaigned on the promise “Less government in business and more business in government,” and whose administration was facing a number of scandals involving uses of government office for personal enrichment. Wilson called for a higher standard of justice and society, which “must include sympathy and helpfulness and a willingness to forgo self-interest in order to promote the welfare, happiness, and contentment of others and of the community as a whole.” He describes these values as requirements of “Christian civilization”, but they’re also values I see many non-Christians uphold and promote today. And they’re in as much need of support now as they were in 1923.
Wilson’s exhortation ran in the August 1923 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, though it was copyrighted as a book (presumably since it was also issued as a pamphlet), and the copyright renewal doesn’t mention the Atlantic. I’ve added a note to the copyright information we have on The Atlantic Monthly to warn that the renewal for the book also presumably covers the work’s magazine publication. (Otherwise, one might presume the issue was in the public domain, since it has no other renewals that I’m aware of.)
In general, if you’re looking at a periodical that seems to be in the public domain due to nonrenewal, but has a particularly famous work or author in its content, it often doesn’t hurt to do a double-check of that work’s copyright, to avoid misunderstandings. If you find any such non-obvious renewals covering content in a periodical, let me know and I’ll add notes in appropriate places in our inventory of periodical renewals.
2019 update: Link to full text of The Road Away From Revolution, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.