Public Domain Day advent calendar #14: Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs

If you’ve been finding these advent calendar posts interesting, you might want to check out some of the other people and organizations that are also promoting the public domain, and the upcoming Public Domain Day. One of the groups that’s been at it for a while is the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University.  Since 2010, they’ve posted an annual observance of Public Domain Day.  They also created a graphic for it that I like a lot, and that they’ve been kind enough to share under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license:

Since nothing published has been entering the public domain in the US for the last 20 years, their annual Public Domain Day posts have instead highlighted what works might have entered the public domain in the year that passed, if the maximum copyright duration available when the works were published was still in effect.  Until 1962 that was 56 years, so they started in 2010 highlighting works from 1953, and got up to 1961 by the time of their 2018 post.

They would have run out of works to feature under that principle this year.  In 1962, the first copyright extension since 1909 was passed, halting entry into the public domain of works copyrighted on September 19, 1906 or later, and ensuring that works copyrighted September 19, 1962 or later would get longer terms, and eventually be eligible for the maximum term established by an anticipated overhaul of US copyright law.  (The Copyright Office has more details on these interim extensions.)

That overhaul to US law was eventually enacted as the Copyright Act of 1976.  That Act set the maximum term of the copyrights that preceded the Act to 75 years, and rounded up all copyright terms to the end of the calendar year.  (That’s why we’ll be getting a full year’s worth of works in the public domain on Public Domain Day, rather than having copyrights expire over the course of the year.)  Under the new law, US fans of the public domain had nothing to celebrate until 1982, when the remainder of 1906’s copyrighted works finally joined the public domain.  We continued to get another year’s works in the public domain for the 16 changes of the year that followed, until 1998’s Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act froze the public domain for 20 years.

Fortunately, this year the Center, along with the rest of the US, gets to celebrate works that actually are entering the public domain here very soon.  The Center’s been particularly thorough about it, producing an Excel spreadsheet with over 1,000 copyright-renewed works from 1923 that will be joining the public domain 18 days from now.

Today I’d like to draw attention to one of the works featured in their Public Domain Day 2019 post: Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  This was the ninth novel in Burroughs’ popular Tarzan series, and one of many adventure stories by this prolific author.  Many of his stories were initially serialized in newspapers or magazines.  Those installments would typically end in a cliffhanger, urging readers to buy the next issue to find out what happened next.  (You can see an example in the ending to one of the Golden Lion installments.)

Tarzan and the Golden Lion began its serialization in the December 9, 1922 issue of Argosy All-Story Weekly.  As the tireless bibliographers at the FictionMags Index have documented, it continued for 6 more weekly installments, concluding with the January 20, 1923 issue.  The book publication came out in March 1923, and its copyright was renewed in 1951.  Argosy, like a number of the other popular pulp fiction magazines of the time, has systematically-renewed issue copyrights, and as of today has active renewals all the way back to its earliest 1923 issue.

The first four installments of Tarzan and the Golden Lion, as they were originally serialized in December 1922 issues of Argosy, have been in the public domain since 1998.  The three parts that tell the rest of the story, in the January 1923 issues, remain under copyright until 2019 arrives.  Or to put it another way, for folks waiting for stories to enter the public domain, this adventure serial has had a cliffhanger lasting for 21 years.

The public domain in the US will get the story’s ending (and its revisions for the book version) 18 days from now, along with the rest of 1923.  I hope that in the future we won’t be left in suspense for years for each succeeding year’s worth of copyrights.

2019 update: Link to full text of Tarzan and the Golden Lion, now in the US public domain, courtesy of Gutenberg Australia.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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