It’s Public Domain Day again. In much of Europe, and other countries with “life+70 years” copyright terms, works by authors who died in 1950, such as George Orwell, Karin Michaelis, George Bernard Shaw, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, have joined the public domain. Canada, and other countries that still have the Berne Convention’s “life+50 years” copyright terms, get works by authors like E. M. Forster, Nelly Sachs, Bertrand Russell, Elsa Triolet, and other authors who died in 1970 in the public domain. And in the United States, copyrights from 1925 that are still in force have expired, introducing to the public domain a wide variety of works I’ve covered in my prior blog post. The new public domain work that I’ve seen most widely noted is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby. My library has a copy of the first edition, and its scan of the volume became available on HathiTrust today.
Though he doesn’t use the term in Gatsby, Fitzgerald and many other authors writing around 1925 are often considered both members and chroniclers of the “Lost Generation”. The term was coined by Gertrude Stein, and made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who used it in the epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises (one of many more works scheduled to join the US public domain a year from now). The Lost Generation describes an age cohort that was disrupted by the First World War, and all the deaths caused by that war and by the influenza pandemic that arose in its wake. Society would never be the same afterwards.
It’s ironic that some of the definitive creations of that generation are themselves part of a largely lost generation. At the time of their publication, they were supposed to enter the public domain after 56 years at most, but that maximum term has been extended by 39 more years, well over a generation’s worth of time. The creators of these works that got the full copyright term are almost all now dead, and many of the less famous works in this cohort have also become lost from most people’s memories. Some, including many fragile films of that era, now have all copies lost as well.
The generation that now sees these works joining the public domain also has many of the makings of a new “lost generation”. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, which badly botched its response compared to many similar countries, far exceeds the number of American deaths in World War I, and is a sizable and rapidly growing fraction of all the American deaths from the 1918-1920 flu pandemic. Many more people who have dealt with illness and quarantine have also experienced what feels like a lost year, one that hasn’t ended yet despite today’s change in the calendar.
But it’s also important to recognize the key role of the public domain and of open access publications in preventing further loss. While Philadelphia, where I live, has been hit hard by this pandemic, it hasn’t been hit as hard as some other places, in part because masking and other behavioral changes have been more widely used and accepted here. Not long before the current pandemic started, the Mutter Museum’s Spit Spreads Death exhibit reminded us of the horrifying death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic here, caused in large part by failing to stop mass gatherings that made the flu spread like wildfire here. The exhibit’s narrative, which many other local media outlets further elaborated on, was able to freely draw on a wide variety of source materials of the era that were all in the public domain due to their age. The freely available sources from 1918 helped spread public health awareness here in 2020.
Open access to resources also spurred the rapid development and testing of effective treatments against COVID. Open sharing of the novel coronavirus genomes, and related scientific data, enabled research on the virus and effective responses to be carried out by many different labs across the globe, and many of the resulting research papers and research materials have also been made freely available in venues that are usually limited to paid subscribers. While much of this work is not public domain, strictly speaking, it is being shared and built on largely as if it were. That has enabled vaccines to be safely rolled out much more quickly than they have been for other diseases.
While we celebrate today’s belated additions to the public domain, it’s also important to promote and protect it, because there are still efforts to freeze it or roll it back. The successor to the NAFTA trade deal requires Canada to add 20 years to its copyright terms, for instance (though Canada has not yet implemented that provision). And while there is no current legislation to extend US copyright terms any further, such extensions have been proposed in the past, and we’ve just seen in Congress’s recent funding bill how questionable changes to copyright law can be jammed into “must-pass” legislation with little or no warning or recourse.
The public domain enriches our culture, reminds us and lets us learn from our past, and helps us make better futures. As 2021 gives us opportunities to turn the page, let’s celebrate the new opportunities we have to enjoy, share, reuse, and build on our newly public domain works. And let’s make sure we don’t lose any more generations.