2020 vision #1: Opportunity

In just thirty days from when this post appears, a new crop of works will join the public domain. Exactly what will come out of copyright will vary by country.  In Europe and other places with “life+70 years” copyright terms, works by authors who died in 1949 will join the public domain on January 1, 2020.  In countries that still have “life+50 years” terms, works by authors who died in 1969 will.  And in the United States, copyrights that were secured in 1924 that are still in force will expire.

As an American, I’m especially excited about the works in that last set.  For most of the 21st century to date, almost nothing entered the public domain in the US, after a 1998 law extended copyright terms by 20 years.  Then last year, all copyrights still active from 1923 expired, and we finally had a Public Domain Day here with lots of new published works that many people noted and celebrated.  And it looks like we’re going to get another big set of works from 1924 in the public domain next month.

Last year, I was so excited about the coming of the first substantial Public Domain Day here in a long time that I wrote advent calendar posts every day in December, discussing 31 works from 1923 that would (and did!) join the public domain in 2019.  It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. I thought it worth the effort, though, to note such a big change in the copyright environment we’d grown accustomed to.  But I wasn’t planning to do all that work again this year.

A few thing, though, have made me reconsider, at least in part.   One of them was an article I saw today about a new collection of stories by Zora Neale Hurston being published in early 2020, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick.  Now recognized as a major 20th century American writer, Hurston published works in a variety of genres and forums from the 1920s through the 1950s.  However, she was not well known outside of African American and literary scholarship circles until the 1970s, when Alice Walker wrote an article in Ms. Magazine in appreciation of her work, and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was reprinted and became a best-seller.

Hurston’s new collection brings back into print a number of her early short stories, which the publisher’s blurb describes as “lost” and “in forgotten periodicals and archives”.  My first thought on reading the blurb was to be annoyed about the erasure of the librarians and archivists who collected, cataloged, and preserved those publications and thereby ensured that they were not, in fact, lost or forgotten.  But then, on further reflection, I realized that for much of the general public, they might as well have been lost, since many people do not have easy access to the libraries and archives that hold them.

One of Hurston’s early stories, “Drenched in Light”, appeared in the December 1924 issue of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, which published a variety of articles, stories, poems, studies, and art by African Americans.  The journal began in 1923, and HathiTrust opened access to its first volume on Public Domain Day at the start of this year.  My listing for the journal also includes some later volumes of the magazine, since as it turns out, the publishers did not renew copyrights for issues prior to the 1940s.  (Most of its authors didn’t renew their contributions either, as you can see in the full set of renewals we’ve found for Opportunity.)  My listings do not yet, however, include the 1924 volume.  HathiTrust has a scan of it, but neither they nor anyone else has yet opened access to it, presumably because no one with a scan feels confident enough about its rights status to do so yet.  I expect it to become visible in 30 days, when 1924’s remaining copyrights expire in the US and HathiTrust opens its volumes from 1924.

Those without access to Opportunity in print might be able to read “Drenched in Light” before then in Hurston’s previously published Complete Stories collection.  But they won’t be able to view the rich context in which it first appeared, from all the other writers and artists who had work published in Opportunity in 1924– even though as I noted in one of last year’s advent calendar entries, many early African-American publications, including many of Hurston’s stories, did not get renewed copyrights.

Between now and Public Domain Day 2020, I’ll be posting on works published in 1924, both the famous and the obscure, that I look forward to coming into clearer view in the new year.  Some will be joining the public domain on January 1.  Some, like the 1924 Opportunity issues, are already in the public domain, but are not as widely accessible as they could be.  (Though many of them can be found in my library, and perhaps in yours.)  I won’t write a post every day, but I hope to publish a fair number on a variety of works by the new year.  You’re welcome to participate, either directly, such as by suggesting works or contributing comments, or indirectly, such as by contributing further information about what’s in the public domain or soon will be.  (Our copyright information for Opportunity, for instance, is part of Penn’s serials copyright knowledge base that you can add to.)

I hope Public Domain Day will be an annual cause for celebration in the United States and elsewhere.  I want new arrivals to the public domain to become routine, but not taken for granted, lest the public domain be frozen again as it was for far too many years.  I hope this series of posts, and other work being done by libraries, readers, and fans of the public domain worldwide, help us recognize the treasures of the public domain and bring more of them to light.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

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