Public Domain Day 2020: Coming Around Again

I’m very happy for 2020 to be arriving.  As the start of the 2020s, it represents a new decade in which we can have a fresh start, and hope to make better decisions and have better outcomes than some of what we’ve gone through in recent years.  And I’m also excited to have a full year’s worth of copyrighted works entering the public domain in much of the world, including in the US for the second year in a row after a 20-year public domain freeze.

Outside the US, in countries that still use the Berne Convention‘s “life plus 50 years” copyright terms, works by authors who died in 1969 are now in the public domain.  (Such countries include Canada, New Zealand, and a number of other countries mostly in Asia and Africa.)  Many other countries, including most European countries, have extended copyright terms to life of the author(s) plus 70 years, often under pressure from the United States or the European Union.  In those countries, works by authors who died in 1949 are now in the public domain.  The Public Domain Review has a “class of 2020” post featuring some of these authors, along with links to lists of other people who died in the relevant years.

In the US, nearly all remaining copyrights from 1924 have now expired, just as copyrights from 1923 expired at the start of last year.  (The exceptions are sound recordings, which will still be under copyright for a little while longer.   But thanks to recent changes in copyright law, those too will join the public domain soon instead of remaining indefinitely in state copyright.)  I discussed some of the works joining the public domain in a series of blog posts last month, in the last one linking to some posts by others that mentioned new public domain arrivals from 1924.  But I’m happy not just because of these specific works, but also because new arrivals to the US public domain are now an annual event, and not just something that happens with published works at rare intervals.  I could get used to this.

It isn’t all good news this year.  The most recent draft of the intellectual property chapter of the US-Canada-Mexico trade agreement requires Canada to extend its copyrights another 20 years, making it freeze its public domain not long after we’ve unfrozen our own in the US.  But the agreement hasn’t yet been ratified, and could conceivably still be changed or rejected.  And the continued force of copyrights from the second half of the previous ’20s while we’re entering a new set of ’20s is a reminder that US copyright terms remain overlong; so long, in fact, that many works from that era are lost or severely deteriorated before their copyrights expire.

But there’s now an annual checklist of things to do for me and for many other library organizations.  For me, some of the things to do for The Online Books Page include:

  • Updating our documentation on what’s public domain  (done) and on what versions of our site are public domain (also done; as in previous years, I’m dedicating to the public domain works that I wrote whose copyrights I control that are were published more than 14 years ago.  This year that includes the 2005 copyrights to The Online Books Page.)
  • Removing the “no US access” notices from 1924 books I’d linked to at non-US sites, when I couldn’t previously establish that they were public domain here; and removing “US access only” notices for 1879 volumes at HathiTrust, which over the next few days will be making 140-year-old volumes globally accessible without requiring author-death-date review.   (This and other activities below will start tomorrow and continue until done.)
  • Updating our list of first active renewals for serials and our “Determining copyright status of serial issues” decision guide to reflect the expiration of 1924’s copyrights.  As part of this process, I’ll be deleting all the 1924 serial issue and contribution renewals currently recorded in our serials knowledge base, since they’re no longer in force.  If anyone wants to know what they were for historical or other analytical purposes, I have a zipped collection of all our serial renewals records as of the end of 2019, available on request.  They can also be found in the January 1, 2020 commit of this Github directory.
  • Adding newly opened or scanned 1924 books to our listings, through our automated OAI harvests of selected digital collections, readers’ suggestions and requests, surveys of prize winners and other relevant collections, and our own bibliographer selections.

All of this is work I’m glad to be doing this year, and hope to be doing more in the years to come.  (And I’m already streamlining our processes to make it easier to do in years to come.)  Its the job of libraries to collect and preserve works of knowledge and creativity and make them easy for people to discover, access, and use.  It’s also our job to empower our users to draw on those works to make new ones.  As the public domain grows, we can freely collect and widely share more works, and our users can likewise build on and reuse more public domain works in their own creations.

Supporting the public domain, then, is supporting the work and mission of libraries.  I therefore hope that all libraries and their users will support a robust public domain, and have more works to celebrate and work with every year.  Happy Public Domain Day!




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2020 vision #5: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

It’s only a few hours from the new year where I write this, but before I ring in the new year, and a new year’s worth of public domain material, I’d like to put in a request for what music to ring it in with: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which joins the public domain in the US as the clock strikes twelve, over 95 years after it was first performed.

The unofficial song for Public Domain Day 2019 turned out to be “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, one of the members of the first big class of US public domain works in the last 20 years.  That’s a fun novelty song, and certainly memorable, but not something I necessarily want to hear a lot.  In contrast, for me Rhapsody in Blue has a freshness that makes it a joy for me to hear repeatedly, right from the opening clarinet glissando (apparently the idea of clarinetist Ross Gorman, who took the scale that Gershwin had composed for the piece and gave it the bendy, slidy wail that tells you right away that this is no ordinary concert piece).  It’s brought together classical, popular, high-art and everyday music, as it’s been played and recorded countless times by jazz bands (the original scoring is for jazz band and piano), symphony orchestras, and pop musicans like Billy Joel.  Even its licensing as an theme tune for an airline hasn’t diminished it.

There’s lots of other work joining the public domain along with Gershwin’s tune.  I’ve only had a chance to mention a few others in my short series, but others have mentioned more works you may find of interest. At the Internet Archive’s blog, Elizabeth Townsend Gard writes about Vera Brittain’s Not without Honour and other 1924 works that will be in the public domain very soon.  Duke’s Public Domain Day 2020 post mentions various books, films, and musical compositions joining the public domain as well (and has more to say on Rhapsody in Blue).  Wikipedia’s various 1924 articles also mention various works that will either be joining the public domain, or becoming more clearly established there.  And Hathitrust will begin opening access to tens of thousands of scanned volumes from 1924 over the next few days.

I’ll have more to say on the new arrivals tomorrow, sometime after the midnight bells chime.  By tradition, the first tune played in the New Year is usually the public domain song “Auld Lang Syne”.  But after that, at your new years’ party or at a later Public Domain celebration, you might enjoy hearing or playing Gershwin’s new arrival in the public domain.



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2020 vision #4: Ding Dong Merrily on High by George Ratcliffe Woodward and others

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas everywhere I go.  The library where I work had its holiday party earlier this week, where I joined librarian colleagues singing Christmas, Hanukkah, and winter-themed songs in a pick-up chorus.  Radio stations and shopping centers play a familiar rotation of popular seasonal songs whose biggest hits are from a surprisingly narrow date range centered in the 1950s.  And more traditional familiar Christmas carols, hymns, and songs are being sung and played in concert halls and churches well into January.

The more “classic” Christmas music often feels timeless to those of us singing and hearing it.  But while their roots often go back far, the form in which we know them is often much newer that we might think.  Notice how the list in the previous link, for instance, includes “Carol of the Bells”, dated 1936.  That’s when it was first published as a Christmas song, one that’s still under copyright.  Its roots are older, and darker, as is made clear in a recent Slate article well worth reading. As noted there, the melody is based on a Ukrainian folk tune (date unknown), its full musical setting composed by Mykola Leontovych (assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1921), and Christmas-themed lyrics written by the Ukrainian-descended American musician Peter Wilhousky (who lived until 1978).

While “Carol of the Bells” still has a number of years left to go on its copyright, another classic Christmas carol will most likely be joining the public domain in the US in just under two weeks.  Like Carol of the Bells, “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is based on a folk tune, in this case a secular dance tune first published in France in the 16th century under the title “Branle de l’Official”.  In 1924, George Ratcliffe Woodward, an English cleric already known for publishing collections of old songs, wrote lyrics for the tune recalling earlier ages, and included them in the Cambridge Carol-Book, published that year by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Charles Wood, who’d collaborated with Woodward on the earlier Cowley Carol Book,  wrote a harmonization to go with it.  While you won’t hear it at every Christmas service, it remains widely sung this time of year.  That’s in large part because it’s so much fun to sing, with its dance-like rhythms, its long bell-like vocal runs on “Gloria” (something also heard in “Angels We Have Heard on High“), and its praise of various forms of music (musicians liking to hear good things about themselves as much as anyone else).

I don’t actually know for sure that “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is still under copyright here.  I have not found a 1951 or 1952 copyright renewal for the song or the book it was published in, but I’m assuming that, if nothing else, GATT restoration retroactively secured and automatically renewed a 1924 US copyright for the song as published in the Cambridge Carol-Book.  (Folks with more knowledge or legal expertise are free to correct me on that.)  Later published arrangements of the song may continue to have active copyrights, but only for material original to those arrangements.  1924’s remaining copyrights, on the other hand, all end in the US on January 1.   (And since Woodward and Wood both died over 70 years ago, the song’s already public domain in most other countries.)

The arrival of 2020, then, should at least clear up any ambiguity about the public domain status of the basic carol.  I appreciate that, in part because this song, like many other Christmas carols, lives in a sort of liminal space between the private property regimes set up for copyright holders and the older, more informal understandings of folk culture.  Both kinds of spaces have good reason to exist. On the one hand, it’s good to have more than a few people who can earn a living through music, and one important way many musicians do so is by controlling rights to their compositions.  On the other hand, the folk process, which originally gave rise to the tunes for both “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and “Carol of the Bells”, is also a very good way of creating and passing on shared cultural works.

Conflict can rage when two different sets of cultural expectations around creative works try to occupy the same space.  That’s one reason we’ve seen decades of conflict in academia over open access, where scholarly work is largely published by companies that depend on its control and sale to earn money, while it’s largely written by scholars who earn their money in other ways, and tend to prefer free, widespread availability of their work.  Sometimes informal arrangements work best to keep the peace.  Publishers, for instance, have grown more used to free preprint servers, and memes and fan fiction communities have become more widely accepted (and even winning awards) as long as they stay well away from unauthorized commercial exploitation (where both big and small creators tend to draw the line).

Sometimes, though, it’s best to have a more formal understanding that works are free for anyone to freely use as we like.  That’s what we’ll have when 1924’s copyrights end, and the works they cover, such as “Ding Dong Merrily on High” are clearly seen to be in the public domain.  And then, those of us who are so inclined can freely sing “hosanna in excelsis!

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2020 vision #3: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

“Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes–the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.”

Sanger Rainsford speaks these words at the start of “The Most Dangerous Game”, one of the most famous short stories of all time. First published in Collier’s magazine in 1924, it’s been reprinted in numerous anthologies, been adapted for radio, TV, and multiple movies, and assigned in countless middle and high school English classes.  The tropes established in the story, in which a hunter finds himself a “huntee”, are so well-established in present-day American culture that there are lengthy TV Tropes pages not just for the story itself, but for the trope named by its title.

Up until now, the story’s been under copyright in the US, as well as in Europe and other countries that have “life plus 70 years” copyright terms.  (The author, Richard Connell,  died just over 70 years ago in 1949, so as of January 1, it will be public domain nearly everywhere in the world.)  Anyone reprinting the story, or explicitly adapting it for drama or art has had to get permission or pay a royalty.  On the other hand, many creators have reused its basic idea– humans being hunted for sport or entertainment– without getting such permission.

That’s because ideas themselves are not copyrightable, but rather the expression of those ideas.  And the basic idea long predates this particular story: Consider, for instance, gladiators in Roman arenas, or tributes being hunted down in the Labyrinth by the Minotaur of Greek mythology.  But the particular formulation in Connell’s short story, in which General Zaroff, a former nobleman bored with hunting animals, lures humans to his private island to hunt and kill them for sport, is both distinctively memorable, and copyrightable.  Stray too close to it, or quote too much from the story, and you may find yourself the target of lawyers.  (But perhaps not if you yourself are dangerous enough game.  I don’t know if the makers of “The Incredibles“, which also featured a rich recluse using his wits and inventions to hunt humans on a private island, paid royalties to Connell’s estate, or relied on fair use or arguments about uncopyrightable ideas.  But in any case, Disney is better equipped to either negotiate or defend themselves against infringement lawsuits than others would be.)

Rereading the story recently, I’m struck by both how it reflects its time in some ways, and in how its action is surprisingly economical.  In 1924, we were still living in the shadow of the First World War, in which multiple empires and noble houses fell, while others continued but began to teeter.  The deadly spectacles of public executions and lynchings were still not uncommon in the United States.  And the dividing of people into two classes– those who are inherently privileged and those who are left in the cold or even considered fair game– was particularly salient that year, as the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan neared its peak in popularity, and as immigration law was changed to explicitly keep out people of the “wrong” national origin or race.  Those sorts of division haunt our society to this day.

Rainsford objects to Zaroff’s dehumanizing game in what we now tend to think of the story’s setup, which actually takes most of the story’s telling.  (The description of the hunt itself is relatively brief, and no words at all are used to describe the final showdown, which implicitly takes place in the gap between the story’s last two sentences.)  In the end, though, Rainsford prevails by beating his opponent at his own game.  He doesn’t want to kill another human being, but when pressed to the extreme, he adopts his opponent’s rules (at the end giving Zaroff the sporting warning “I am still a beast at bay… Get ready”) and proves to be the better killer.

With the story entering the public domain in less than three weeks, we’ll have the chance to reuse, adapt, and critique the story in quotation more freely than ever before.  I hope we use the opportunity not just to recapitulate the story, but to go beyond it in new ways. That’s what happens in the best reuses of tropes.  Consider for instance, how in the Hunger Games books, the main character Katniss repeatedly finds ways to subvert the trope of killing others for entertainment.  Instead of prevailing by beating opponents at the deadly human-hunting game the enemy has created, she and her allies find ways to reject the game’s premise, cut it short, or prevent its recurrence.

When, in 19 days, we get another year’s worth of public domain works, I hope we too find ways not just to revisit what’s come before, but make new and better work out of them.  That’s something that the public domain allows everyone, and not just members of some privileged class, to do.






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2020 vision #2: When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne

I mentioned in my previous post that I was looking forward to works entering the public domain in the US as a routine annual event. This coming January 1, we’ll have the second large expiration of copyrights in the US since 1998 (the first being the most recent January 1).  I’ve sometimes heard cynicism expressed that this would ever happen. Some public domain fans will tell you that Disney had been responsible for preventing valuable characters like Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain for decades, and that they’ll force more copyright extensions through before his copyright is scheduled to expire in a few years.

Personally, I think that’s a myth that makes despair too easy.  While Disney has indeed been one of the companies that has lobbied for longer copyrights, they’re far from the only group that has done so, and their role is often exaggerated relative to other entertainment and publishing industry groups.  Moreover, copyrights to some of their most profitable characters are already starting to expire, and  so far they have neither pushed hard to extend them, nor to my knowledge seen a loss in their profitably.

I’m referring here to the A. A. Milne characters that Disney now owns (after some earlier legal battles were resolved): Winnie-the-Pooh, and his friends Christopher Robin, Piglet, Owl, and the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood.  By some accounts they are as profitable as Mickey, possibly more so.  And they probably will remain profitable even as their copyrights end.

Christopher Robin’s first published appearance as a character, for instance, was in the poem “Vespers” (whose most famous line is “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”). It appeared in the January 1923 issue of Vanity Fair, and is already in the public domain in the US, as of the start of this year.  Beginning in January 1924, Milne published more children’s poems featuring Christopher Robin and others in Punch, which were republished later in the year in the book When We Were Very Young.  That book was an international best-seller, and along with the later book Winnie-the-Pooh, it launched Milne, his son, and his stuffed toys to worldwide fame and fortune (which, as I noted in last year’s post on Milne’s Success, was at best a mixed blessing for them.)

I find When We Were Very Young a delightful book.  Like its successors, it isn’t straight-up nostalgic whimsy, but has a gently wry sensibility that parents may notice more readily than their children do.  Along with “Vespers”, some of the other verses (like the ones about changing guards at Buckingham Palace, and the king who likes “a little bit of butter in my bread”) are still well-known.  But the book is significant not just for the text, which is already in the public domain in some other countries with terms less than “life plus 70 years”, but for Ernest Shepard’s illustrations for the book, which will be joining the public domain in the US along with Milne’s poems.  Those include recognizable likenesses not just of Christopher Robin, but of a certain bear that appears a few times, including in the upper left of the book’s cover:

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; they and I consider this low-resolution image fair use in our respective contexts.)

The bear doesn’t yet have the name “Winnie-the-Pooh”.   In this book he’s just called “Teddy Bear”, or more formally, Mr. “Edward Bear” (a name also used in his later book).  His appearance, as established in this book, joins the public domain next month.   The year after that, it will be joined by his “Pooh” name and his first prose story (“The Wrong Sort of Bees”, published in London’s Evening News at Christmastime 1925).  The following year, most of the rest of Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood friends will join the public domain, along with the book Winnie-the-Pooh (which includes Pooh’s bee story as its first chapter). Tigger, who bounced into print two years later in The House at Pooh Corner, will be the last of the major Milne characters to join the public domain, the same year as we can expect Mickey Mouse’s first copyrights to expire in the US.

But Disney will still have be able to profit substantially from its rights to Pooh (and Mickey).  After all, the Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons and movies they made came later, and their copyrights still have decades left on them.  Disney’s likenesses of Pooh and his friends also differ substantially from Shepard’s, and will therefore also be under copyright for many more years.

Moreover, much of the revenue Disney gets from these characters is not from their stories or cartoons, but from the merchandise associated with them– clothing, housewares, toys, and the like.  Those can be protected by trademark, and unlike copyrights, trademarks for various kinds of goods and services do not expire as long as their owners keep using them along similar lines.  (For example, while the character Peter Pan is no longer copyrighted in most countries, trademarks restrict using him to promote things like peanut butter and bus transportation to his current licensees.)

Someone who wants to reuse Christopher Robin, Pooh, and Mickey Mouse in creative works after their copyrights expire might still need to be careful about how they promote that work.  But courts have made it clear in cases like Dastar v. Twentieth Century Fox that trademark cannot be used to create a de-facto perpetual copyright.  I expect that over the next few years we’ll see some legal skirmishing over where to draw the line between unrestricted creativity and restricted merchandising, for Disney’s characters now entering the public domain.  (We’ve seen similar conflicts over Tarzan in the past, even as many of his stories have long been in the public domain and freely available online.)

Personally, I’m content if Winnie-the-Pooh-branded bedsheets and bubble bath remain Disney’s domain, as long as readers can freely enjoy Milne’s stories and Shepard’s drawings, and writers and artists can adapt them into new stories, scenes, and objects (and promote those new works within reasonable guidelines).  I’m hoping we’ll keep getting new arrivals to the public domain every year, from 1924 in January, then 1925 next year, and so on. And I’m hopeful that we will, as long as so many of us appreciate and make clear the value of a growing public domain, that those who might otherwise try to extend copyright further can’t ignore us.

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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.

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Wikipedia and the deep backfile

We’re continuing to add serial information to the Deep Backfile project that I announced here last month.  I’m adding some of the existing information in The Online Books Page serials listings and our first serial renewals listings that hadn’t initially been linked in when I made the first announcement.  I’ve added journals with deep backfiles from a couple more publishers (Oxford and Cambridge). I’ve started adding some new information on a few journals that I’ve heard people be interested in.  And I’ve heard from some librarians who are interested in contributing more information, which I welcome, since there are a lot of journals with information still to fill in.

But we needn’t stop with librarians and journals.  I’ve seen many kinds of serials written about online that potentially have public domain content, or the otherwise offer free online issues.  Many of them have articles about them in Wikipedia, sometimes short summary stub, and sometimes more extensive write-ups.  I’m most familiar with English Wikipedia, the largest and oldest, and recently wondered how many serials had free online issues or were old enough to potentially have public domain issues.  So I decided to answer that question by building a table for that set of serials.

It turns out to be a very big table:  over 10,000 serials with English Wikipedia articles that have free or potentially public domain content.  That’s bigger than the combination of all the other publisher and provider tables I currently link to from the Deep Backfile page.  There are lots of serials in it with no copyright or free issue information available, and it would take any single person a very long time to find such information, verify it, and fill it in.

But I think it’s still useful in its current state.  You can use it to find out about a lot of public domain and open access serials you’ve probably never heard of, as well as many that you have.  You can click through serial titles to see their Wikipedia articles, and improve on them if you have more information.  You can click on their Wikidata IDs to see and add to their metadata.  (As you can see from the relatively small number of end dates shown in the “coverage” column, there is limited information currently in Wikidata for many of the serials.)  You can see what we know about their copyrights, and about free online issue availability, and follow the “Contact us” links if you want to contribute more information about either of those.  (Last month’s post included instructions on how to research serial copyrights. Links to the two main resources you need to research them– the first renewals listing and the Copyright Office database— are now provided directly from the form you get to when you select a “Contact us” link.)  And when a new English Wikipedia article and Wikidata entry on a serial gets added that shows it was published before 1964, it will be automatically added to this table the next time we generate it.

Whether you’re a Wikipedian, a librarian, or just a reader interested in journals, magazines, newspapers, comics, or other serials, I hope you find this information useful, and I invite you to help fill it in as your interests and time permit.  Let me know or comment here if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions.


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Invitation to participate in a new project: Help open journals’ deep backfiles

As I’ve noted here previously, there’s a wealth of serial content published in the 20th century that’s in the public domain, but not yet freely available online, often due to uncertainty about its copyright (and the resulting hesitation to digitize it).  Thanks to IMLS-supported work we did at Penn, we’ve produced a complete inventory of serials from the first half of the 20th century that still have active copyright renewals associated with them. And I’ve noted that there was far more serial material without active copyright, as late as the 1960s or even later.  We’ve also produced a guide to determining whether particular serial content you may be interested in is in the public domain.

Now that we’ve spent a lot of time surveying what is still in copyright though, it’s worth turning more focused attention to serial content that isn’t in copyright, but still of interest to researchers.  One way we can identify journals whose older issues (sometimes known as their “deep backfiles”) are still of interest to researchers and libraries is to see which ones are included in packages that are sold or licensed to libraries.   Major vendors of online journals publish spreadsheets of their backfile offerings, keyed by ISSN.  And now, thanks to an increasing amount of serial information in Wikidata (including links to our serials knowledge base) it’s possible to systematically construct inventories of serials in these packages that include, or might include, public domain and other openly accessible content.

We’ve now done that, for packages from some of the big online journal publishers (as of today, including Elsevier, SAGE, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley).  We’ve also included inventories for the JSTOR journal platform, which has deep backfiles of sought-after journals from many publishers.  The inventories can be found here, and they include information we’ve gathered about first copyright renewals, when known, and also about free online volumes and issues that we know about.

Many of the journals in our inventory tables have “Unknown” under the “first renewal” column.  That’s where you can help.  If you find journals of interest to you in any of these tables, you can research their copyrights and send us what you find out.  Thanks to our prior inventory work, the process can be boiled down to a few basic steps:

  1. Find a journal of interest to you in one of the tables.
  2. If its first renewal is reported in the table as “Unknown”, look to see if it’s mentioned in our “first copyright renewals for periodicals” inventory.  (While most journals listed there are now linked with Wikidata, those that are not may still report “Unknown” in our tables.  We’re trying to fill those in as soon as we can manage.)
  3. If you don’t find the journal listed there, then search for it in the Copyright Office’s registered works database.  (We describe how to search that database in Appendix A of our “Determining copyright status of serial issues” guide.)
  4. Use the “contact us” link in the journal’s row in our inventory table to go to a form where you can tell us the earliest renewed item you found for the journal in steps 2 and/or 3.  Also tell us, if you know, whether the journal was published in the United States, or only elsewhere.   (Works not published in the US might be exempt from copyright renewal requirements.)

After you send this information, we’ll update our knowledge base and tables accordingly (possibly after doing our own verification).  You can also use the “contact us” form to inform us of free online issues we don’t yet mention, or contribute more detailed copyright information about a particular journal if you’re so inclined.  All copyright and listings data we publish will be put in the public domain via a CC0 dedication.

If you’re willing and able to contribute information for a large number of serials, there may be more efficient ways for us to exchange information, and I invite you to get in touch with me.  Also, if time permits, we can do our own research on serials that you’re interested in, so if you find a favorite in the tables and aren’t confident about researching it yourself, just follow its “contact us” link, and click on the “submit” button near the bottom of the form that comes up.

All of the journal providers mentioned above (none of whom have had any involvement with this project to date) also offer extensive archives of content that’s still under copyright.   Their newer journals from the era of automatic copyright renewals (1964 and later) aren’t generally represented in the tables we currently provide, which focus on the mostly-older content that’s openly or potentially openly available.  You can follow the links on the provider names above to get information on the complete offerings of those providers available for subscription or purchase.

Our Deep Backfile project is very much a work in progress, but I think it’s far enough along now to be useful for folks interested in finding and sharing information about serials in the public domain of research interest. I’m looking forward to hearing others’ thoughts, questions, and suggestions, and to making our knowledge base more populated and useful.



Posted in citizen librarians, copyright, open access, serials | Comments Off on Invitation to participate in a new project: Help open journals’ deep backfiles

Everybody’s Library Questions: Copyright and advertisements

My previous post answered a reader question about how to determine whether a newspaper (or other serial issue) was under copyright or not.  (More details about the process can be found in our guide “Determining copyright status of serial issues”.)  Some people still wonder about the ads, though.  Here are some questions about those from Nena Ceg of Project Mindshare.  (Steve Jones also asked similar questions):

“Where can I find copyright information about illustrations from magazine ads (pre-1964)? Are illustrations in those ads in the public domain? They required a copyright notice from the illustrator, or the illustrator´s signature was enough?”

The short answer: Yes, ads, and the illustrations in them, can have their own copyrights, just like issue contributions and illustrations can have their own copyright.  But very few pre-1964 US ads still have active copyright; and research and library digitization projects often don’t have to worry about them.  Those wanting to use magazine ads commercially might need to take more care, not just for copyright reasons but also for trademark reasons.  For reliable legal guidance, you should talk to your lawyer (and I’m not one).

Here’s a longer answer with more details:

Finding ad-related copyrights

Copyrights for ads that appear in serials might be registered and renewed in one of three categories: in Contributions to Periodicals (which is where stories and articles in serials would also be registered and renewed); in Artwork (for advertising illustrations); or possibly in Commercial Prints and Labels.  The Catalog of Copyright Entries (which runs up to 1978, covering renewals for publications through 1950) published different sections for each category, and the sections can be examined and searched online.  (The link above goes to a page with more details.) All categories in the Copyright Office’s online database (which runs from 1978 onward, covering renewals for publications from 1950 and later) can be searched at once.  (Note that copyrights from 1964 and later either automatically renewed or didn’t have to be renewed, which is why we’re discussing pre-1964 ads here.)

There are a few ads renewed as contributions to periodicals, but not many that I’ve found so far.  In our copyright information page for the New York Post, where we’ve filled in details for early renewed contributions, you’ll see some ads for Schenley Distillers among the renewals. (The first one is dated May 15, 1936.)  Some  ads featuring the electric utility mascot Reddy Kilowatt were also renewed as periodical contributions– the earliest ones I’ve found ran in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1934.  I have a hard time recalling any other ad series before 1950 that had significant numbers of renewals.  Since we list the first contribution renewals for serials in our copyright inventory, though, if an ad was renewed as a contribution to a periodical appearing in that inventory, the periodical should be shown with a first-renewal date for contributions on or before the date of the ad.  (And in some cases, as with the New York Post, we also list contribution renewals after the first one, so you can look for a renewal for the ad in that list if it says it includes all active renewals up to the ad’s date.)

It’s also possible that images in the ads (or of the ads) may have renewed copyrights.  But, as with other images in periodicals, that’s pretty rare, and in our decision guide, we consider it highly unlikely unless they have a copyright notice of their own (as some did). We describe in Appendix C of our copyright determination guide how to search for copyrights of images.  You will find a few ad-related images in the sources listed there, including the original cartoon image of Reddy Kilowatt, copyrighted in 1926 and renewed in 1954.  Search for “Reddy” in Project Gutenberg’s transcription of artwork renewals from 1951 to 1959, and he comes right up.

Some other well-known cartoon characters that made their debut after 1923 also may have active copyrights, either from artwork renewals or from copyright renewals of the publications or films in which they first appeared.  (Many of the best-known characters, franchises, and syndicates with active copyrights are mentioned in Appendix D of our guide.)  But beyond Reddy Kilowatt, active renewed copyrights in characters specifically created for advertising appear to be rare, at least in the renewals I’ve looked at (primarily for publications up to 1950).

Advertising matter also could get copyrighted in the “Commercial Prints and Labels” category.  Unlike with contributions and artwork, no one that I know of has yet produced searchable files or databases for commercial prints renewals in the Catalog of Copyright Entries.  (They are in the Copyright Office’s searchable registered works database when that picks up in 1978.)  But there aren’t that many commercial prints renewals, so it could be convenient and not too hard to produce searchable files for the early active ones, like Project Gutenberg has done for other artwork renewals.  You can still look through them online through the Catalog of Copyright Entries scans, but for now you’ll have to look at the page images of the scans.  I’ve looked over many of the Commercial Prints renewals pages, and have found a number of labels and what appear to be standalone posters, but have had a hard time finding anything in this category that appears to be a magazine or newspaper ad.  (If you find any, though, let me know.)

Copyright, fair use, and trademark

I’m inclined myself not to worry about searching for ad copyright renewals unless I find a copyright notice for the ad.  (An artist signature by itself is not a copyright notice, though it can provide a useful name to search on if you’re inclined to do so.)  I’m not particularly worried both because copyright renewals for ads are rare in my experience (as noted above), and also because even if there are active copyrights in some of the advertising matter, a good case for fair use can be made for the sort of uses we tend to make of them in libraries and universities.  Our digitization is noncommercial; it’s typically for purposes of study, research, or commentary; the ads are generally not the primary focus of interest for the content we’re digitizing; and there is usually little or no market now for the ads themselves (as opposed to the products the ads were designed to sell).  Appendix E of our copyright determination guide has more notes on the use of materials that might still be under copyright.

If I were contemplating more commercial use of an ad, though, such as selling prints or T-shirts, or including them in promotions, I’d want to be more careful both to check the copyrights, and also to ensure that I wasn’t using trademarks improperly.  Although copyrights expire after a set time period, trademarks (including brand names, slogans, logos, and other distinctive imagery associated with a brand) can last indefinitely as long as their owner keeps them in use, with some still going strong after more than a century.

It’s not against the law to simply reproduce a trademark, but it can be illegal to present it in a manner that creates confusion or misleads a consumer.  For instance, if I reproduced a public domain ad for Coca-Cola in a newspaper that I scanned and put online, readers would not normally think that my scan was sponsored by Coca-Cola, or indeed had any direct connection with the company.  But if I placed that same ad prominently on a vending machine that dispensed bottles of Pepsi, thirsty customers might think they were buying a soda different from the one they actually got.  That could lead to legal troubles that I wouldn’t have from simply reproducing the newspaper.

Similar problems could result if I sold T-shirts or posters with a company logo or other trademark that customers thought was created or endorsed by that company.  For this reason, Disney may retain control over clothing featuring Disney characters even after copyrights for the older characters start expiring a few years from now. They can’t use their character trademarks to stop all reproductions or creative uses of copyright-expired characters, but since they’ve registered trademarks for the use of many of those characters in branded clothing, and continue to sell character-themed clothes, they’d have good arguments that, say, many unlicensed Mickey Mouse-themed hats or T-shirts would be confused for approved Disney products.

The long and short of it

In summary, then, I believe serial digitization projects can clear copyrights for ads in periodicals pretty much the same way that they clear copyrights for other material in periodicals.  The instructions we have in our copyright determination guide should work for them, as far as I’m aware.  Remember, though, that I am not a lawyer, and certainly not your lawyer, and you’re best off consulting one if you want more assurance about the legal soundness of your reproducing or otherwise using other people’s ads.  I also have not had as much experience myself with digitization of serials as others have.  Comments are open below (for now), and I’d be very happy to hear from people with more expertise or relevant experience.


Posted in copyright, serials | 2 Comments