Public Domain Day advent calendar #4: The Adventure of the Creeping Man by Arthur Conan Doyle

As I noted in yesterday’s post, under US copyright law we sometimes get early works by long-lived authors in our public domain earlier than most other countries do. But we also often have to wait longer for authors’ late works.  Today I consider the case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his most famous creation, the ingenious detective Sherlock Holmes.

Like some of the other authors I’ve mentioned to date, Sir Arthur had a long writing career, and published writings on a variety of subjects.  He wrote in support of British actions in the South African War (commonly cited as the reason for the knighthood awarded to him in 1902).  Late in his career, he also wrote surprisingly credulously on alleged visitations of fairies, based on suspiciously composed photographs eventually admitted by their creators to be fakes.  Today, though, he’s best known for Holmes, who made his debut in A Study in Scarlet (1887), and appeared in a wildly popular series of stories that ran until the author got tired of him and killed him off in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” (1893).

It didn’t stick, though.  Public demand for more Holmes stories led the author to publish another Holmes novel in 1901 (but set before his plunge over the Reichenbach Falls), The Hound of the Baskervilles.  By 1903, Conan Doyle gave in and brought Holmes back to life in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, one of the more famous early examples of retroactive continuity now common in comics and other long-running entertainment series.  Conan Doyle would continue to publish Holmes stories, at a somewhat slower pace than before, through 1927, the same year the last ones were collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle died in 1930, so his published works entered the public domain in the UK and many other countries in 1981, after 50 years had passed from his death.  In 2001, they entered the public domain under “life + 70 years” regimes (which the UK and many other countries had adopted in the interval).  But while early Holmes stories have been in the public domain in the United States for a long time, his last stories are still under copyright here.  Their copyright terms start with their first publication, though, and the last stories were published in magazines before they were published in the Case-Book.  In particular, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” was published in the March 1923 issues of both the Strand Magazine and Hearst’s International.  The author’s children renewed the copyright to the story in 1950, and copyrights were also routinely renewed for Hearst’s issues.  US copyrights for the story, and for the other content in the 1923 issues of Hearst’s, will end 28 days from today.

The character of Sherlock Holmes was well-established in his early stories, and many Holmes fans consider the later Case-Book stories relatively minor.  That hasn’t stopped the Conan Doyle estate from claiming proprietary rights over Holmes stories generally, though, based on its US copyrights to the last few stories.  When the estate tried to block an anthology of new Holmes stories that Leslie Klinger planned to publish, unless he got permission and paid a fee, Klinger sued for a declaratory judgment that he did not need any such permission.  In 2014, the 7th Circuit agreed with him, noting that Klinger was not proposing to reuse elements introduced in the late stories, and that the “the alterations [in those stories] do not revive the expired copyrights on the original characters”.  In a later ruling, the same court awarded Klinger attorney’s fees from the estate,  calling their practices “a form of extortion” and saying “It’s time the estate, in its own self-interest, changed its business model”.

A more detailed legal analysis of the case can be found in Jessica L. Malekos Smith’s article “Sherlock Holmes & the Case of the Contested Copyright” (2016).  That article refers to the initial ruling I’ve linked above under the citation “755 F.3d 496”.  That notation, cryptic as it may appear to laypeople, refers to a commonly cited legal source that has had its own copyright controversies, and that also includes material that will soon be added to the public domain.  I’ll talk about it more in tomorrow’s calendar entry.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #3: Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Few authors have had as longstanding an influence on their genres as Agatha Christie.  In her more than half-century career writing detective fiction, she established (and then often went on to break) many of the expectations of the English “whodunit” puzzle story.  Her novels continue to be adapted for movies and television (recent examples being 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and 2018’s Ordeal by Innocence), and their fingerprints are all over many crime novels to this day.  (For instance, Anthony Horowitz’s best-selling 2016 novel Magpie Murders, which I read while traveling last week, very explicitly both imitates and reacts to Christie’s style.)

Christie died in 1976, less than 50 years ago, so her works are still under copyright in most countries.  But her career was long enough that her early work has started to enter the public domain in the United States. That’s because the United States used fixed copyright terms, rather than terms based on the author’s lifetime, until the 1970s.  Christie’s first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduced what may be her most famous character, Hercule Poirot.  The novel entered the public domain in the United States in 1996.  In 1998, it was joined there by The Secret Adversary (1922), which introduced the detective couple Tommy and Tuppence.  (Copies of both novels are online.)

1998 was also the year that the US Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended most copyrights for 20 years and froze the US public domain for published works– until the end of this year.  29 days from now, though, we should see more Christie works entering the public domain here, including The Murder on the Links, in which Hercule Poirot returns to solve a murder mystery in France.  The Murder on the Links was published in both the US and the UK in 1923, and its copyright was renewed in the US in 1950.  That copyright, like other 1923 copyrights still in force, is set to expire here at the end of this year.

Another English author’s famous detective also made his debut in 1923: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey.  Unlike The Murder on the Links, his debut novel, Whose Body? will not be entering the US public domain this coming January.  But that’s because it’s already in the public domain here (at least in its first edition), and has been since 1951, as I found out some years ago after a little detective work of my own.

How did this happen?  Under the copyright system used in the US in 1923, copyrights were initially secured for a 28-year term, and then had to be renewed in their 28th year to remain in effect.  A 1923 copyright, then, needed to be renewed in either 1950 or 1951 to get another term. (Initially that term was 28 more years, but was later extended to 47 more years, and further extended to 67 more years with the 1998 copyright term extension noted above).  Later changes in copyright law (which I’ll discuss further in later calendar entries) exempted many works first published outside the US from the renewal requirement.  However, when reading Barbara Reynolds’ biography Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, I found out that due to publisher delays, Whose Body? had come out first in the United States, before Sayers’ British publisher issued it.  So if its copyright wasn’t renewed, it was no longer in effect here.

A search through the US Copyright Office’s Catalog of Copyright Entries confirmed that no renewal had been filed for the book. So I digitized it and contributed it to my wife’s Celebration of Women Writers website, where you can read it today (if you’re in the US, or a country whose copyright terms last for 60 years or less from the author’s death).

In less than a month, American readers will have more mysteries to read online, share, or adapt– and not just from Christie (or Sayers).  Tomorrow’s advent calendar entry will feature another famous detective whose stories are all in the public domain almost everywhere in the world, but not quite all there in the US, and note one of the copyright battles that situation sparked.






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Public Domain Day advent calendar #2: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Cantata by Frances McCollin

Today marks the start of the Christian season of Advent in my church, four Sundays before Christmas. It’s an important time of the year for vocal music, as choirs both sacred and secular rehearse and perform Christmas-related music in services and concerts.  We like singing public domain classics– those have stood the test of time and are often well-known to our audiences, and we can copy scores cheaply and don’t have to worry about performance rights or royalties.  We also like to sing newer copyrighted works– those can be fresh and exciting, and can often be easily found in print and in recordings.  Older works still under copyright, though, can often fade into obscurity, even when they’re by creators who were once well-known.

Today’s Public Domain Day advent calendar entry falls into that category.   Though Frances McCollin had a long career in Philadelphia, where I’ve lived and sung for nearly 20 years, I don’t recall hearing of her before doing research for this calendar. Blind from an early age, she took a synesthetic approach to music, according to her biography Frances McCollin: Her Life and Music (1990), associating various keys with different colors and moods.  She published nearly 100 pieces of music, and her works have been performed by groups that include the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Warsaw Symphony.  The library where I work has some of her papers in its special collections; the Free Library of Philadelphia has others. Some of her early public domain music is now freely available online, such as “The Singing Leaves” (1918).  And some of it is still performed today. I’ve found online a sample of a recent recording by Canada’s Elektra Women’s Choir of her arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter” for women’s voices.  (McCollin died in 1960, so most of her published work is in the public domain in Canada. I’m not sure of the US copyright status of this particular composition.)

I had a much harder time, however finding traces of another Christmas vocal piece she was known for in her day, a children’s chorale setting of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”.  Based on the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore (which, published 100 years earlier, had been in the public domain for her to adapt), her cantata was copyrighted in 1923, and renewed in 1950.  That copyright persists to this day, as the piece has faded into obscurity.  But 30 days from now, the work will enter the public domain in the US, and anyone interested in it can digitize it, make copies, perform it, or create new works based on it, without having to find a rightsholder to ask permission or pay royalties.

As Public Domain Day approaches, I’m looking forward to seeing familiar works join the public domain in the US, like the perennial international best-seller featured in yesterday’s calendar post.  But for every work like that, there are many more works that are less well-known, on all kinds of topics of interest, by people who lived all over, including in one’s own hometown.   They may have been largely out of sight for years, but their entry into the public domain gives them a new opportunity to be discovered, enjoyed, and shared by anyone.

If you know of any other works that will be coming into the public domain this January you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them.  I’ll post about another one tomorrow.


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Public Domain Day advent calendar #1: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

“Your children are not your children […]
For they have their own thoughts […]
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

The lines above are from one of the more well-known parts of The Prophet, written by Lebanese-American poet and artist Kahlil Gibran.  Though they talk about one’s offspring, one could also see them as applying to one’s creations.  They may originate from people (parents or authors) who start with great control and influence over them, but eventually they become independent of their origin.  To quote another line in the poem, they “dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit”.

Since The Prophet was first published in 1923, it has to a large extent been under the control and influence of its author, and then, after his death in 1931, his estate.  But over time it has entered the public domain in various countries around the world.  It entered the public domain in many countries at the start of 1982, after 50 years had passed from the author’s death.  It entered (and in some cases, re-entered) the public domain in many others in 2002, more than 70 years after his death.  And finally, 31 days from now, it will enter the public domain in the United States, as part of the first batch of published works to enter the public domain in more than 20 years.

During the month of December, this blog will feature various works from 1923 that will be joining the public domain in the US this coming January 1, Public Domain Day.  The Prophet is fairly well-known and still easy to find in print.  Many other interesting works from 1923 are not so well-known or easy to find, and I hope to feature a wide variety of works over the next 31 days.  (I already have some works planned to feature, but have not yet filled out a full roster; if there are any in particular you’d like to suggest, let me know by commenting here or by contacting me.)

I plan to keep most of the posts short, but I’ll have links to more information on the works and authors featured, and folks are also welcome to discuss them further here in the comments if they wish.  Come the new year, I’ll also go back and add live links to online copies of the works when possible.  (For now, I’ll just add a link to all online books I know of by Gibran, some of which are already public domain in the US, and some of which aren’t yet but are public domain elsewhere.)

I may also sometimes take the opportunity to point out aspects of copyright relevant to the featured work.  For instance, in this post I’ve directly copied material from Gibran’s book (by quoting from it) even though I’ve noted that it’s still under copyright where I am.  I can do this thanks to the principle of fair use, which allows such copying under certain circumstances. There’s no universal algorithm for determining whether fair use applies in a particular case, but since I’m only quoting a small portion, in a noncommercial educational context, in order to provide original commentary and not to provide a substitute for the original work, a fair use defense would be very likely to prevail if a copyright dispute came up.  Once The Prophet enters the public domain here, though, we’ll be able to use larger portions, or the whole work, for a much wider variety of purposes.

I’ll post my next Public Domain Day advent calendar entry tomorrow.  I hope you’ll come back then to read it, and welcome your comments.




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Why pay for what’s free? Finding open access and public domain articles

[Another version of this post appears on PennLibNews, as part of the Penn Libraries’ celebration of Open Access Week.]

It happens to most researchers all too often.  You see a reference or a link to an article that you’d love to read or use in your research.  It looks like the article is online.  But when you follow the link or look up the journal of venue it’s in, you’re confronted with a paywall— an impassable login screen, or a demand to pay a fee to read the article.  Not all journals charge fees to readers (in fact, thousands do not), but for those that do, the fees are sometimes quite large– they can be $30 or $40 or more for a single article, and sometimes that fee only gets you access for a limited time period.  Readers not affiliated with research institutions often run into paywalls, but so do scholars at elite research institutions, because none of us can afford to pay the ever-growing subscription prices of all the commercial journals on the market.  (Not even Harvard.)

When you hit a paywall, it’s tempting to give up, look for other articles instead, or take your chances trying to get an illicit copy from sketchy bootleg sites.  But there are various ways you can often get a legitimate version of the article you seek without having to pay anything.  Here are some avenues you can look into.

There may be a legitimate free copy posted elsewhere online.

The website of a journal is often not the only place you can read the papers in it.  Many authors also put their own copies of their papers online.  There are various ways this can be done legally. Many journals and publishers allow authors to self-archive their papers on their personal or institution’s web sites, and sometimes elsewhere.  (Authors might also negotiate this right when they contract with a publisher.)  Typically the posted copies will not have the typesetting and formatting of the journal copies, but instead be a “preprint”– the version of the paper submitted to the journal– or a “postprint”– the paper after it’s been peer-reviewed and revised, but before it’s been reformatted with the journal’s customary typesetting and layout.  There may also be an earlier iteration of a paper freely available online, such as a version presented at a conference or a working paper at an eprint site like, SocArXiv, or Humanities Commons CORE.

How do you find these free versions of articles?  Many of them can be found in Google Scholar, by typing in the title of the paper and the name of the lead author. (Sometimes earlier versions of the paper will have different titles, so you might also want to try typing in the names of the authors and some keywords, or a characteristic phrase from the abstract or introduction if you have access to it.)  Google Scholar searches will often turn up both the publisher’s version and other versions that might be freely readable or downloadable.  (Look for an “all versions” link by the search results; selecting that link will often show you the other versions.)

Unpaywall is another important tool for finding free articles.  Its database of free alternatives to published articles isn’t as big as Google Scholar’s, but it’s still quite large– over 20 million to date– and it offers a variety of ways of finding articles that Google Scholar doesn’t offer. For instance, they offer a free browser plugin (currently available for Firefox and Chrome) that will inform you of free alternatives when you visit a web page for a paywalled paper.  They also make their knowledge base available via APIs and bulk data downloads, allowing developers to build new applications for finding and using free versions of papers.  (As a result, Unpaywall links are now available in some other bibliographic databases, such as Scopus and Web of Science, that are offered at the Penn Libraries and elsewhere.)

You might be able to get a copy from your library.

If you can’t find a free copy of the article you want on the open web, you may still be able to find a copy of the article through your library’s catalog, or via inter-library loan.

Searching the catalog can often turn up copies you can access for free.   The web sites for many academic libraries, including the Penn Libraries, allow you to search for both journals and articles accessible via the library.  If your library’s web site offers article searching, enter the title and first author’s name of the article you’re interested in– you might find a copy you can access via one of the library’s licensed databases.  If your library just has a traditional catalog search, enter the title of the journal the article appeared in.  The results may give you electronic access to the journal you’re interested in, or it might let you know about print copies the library has that contain the article.  (Many journals still publish a print version.)

If your library doesn’t have the journal you seek in its collection, it might still enable you to get a copy of the article you want via inter-library loan.  These days, inter-library loan can be quite fast, and in many places you can get a copy of the article delivered to you electronically. (Here’s how it works at Penn.) Visit your local librarian to find out more about what they can do for you.

It may be in the public domain.

Just because an article is behind a paywall doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually copyrighted.  If you’re interested in an older article, it might be in the public domain. Many journal volumes published before 1923 have scans freely available online, and can be found via resources like The Online Books Page.  But many later scholarly publications are public domain as well, including US publications prior to 1964 that did not renew their copyrights, and US publications prior to 1989 that were not published with copyright notices.  Most US scholarly publications before 1964 in fact do not have copyright renewals (though a fair number do); and some more informal or noncommercial scholarly publications lacked copyright notices.  At the Penn Libraries, we’ve been gathering information about periodicals and their copyright status over the course of the 20th century, and have information on many 20th-century journals here.  (If you don’t see the journal that you’re interested in, and it was published in the US between 1923 and 1963, let us know about it and we’ll research it and put information about it in our resource.  We’ll also list whatever public domain issues we can find freely available online.)

Just because an article or journal issue is in the public domain,  there won’t necessarily be a free online copy.  But if you do locate a copy of a public domain article or issue, you’re free to scan it yourself and share it with others.  We hope that our listings of copyright information for various periodicals will prompt libraries and others who own those periodicals to digitize and freely share their public domain contents.

You might be able to get an article from its author(s).

If the article you’re interested in is a recent one, its authors might be reachable online.  They might well have copies of their articles, and be willing to email a copy to a fellow researcher who asks for it.  (Unlike the publishers, authors of scholarly articles generally earn no money from them, so they have little reason to be stingy about access.)  This sort of person-to-person informal, non-systematic sharing has a long tradition in academia, and is generally allowed by publishers (and sometimes explicitly authorized; see for example this IEEE policy, which at this writing says it’s fine to “share copies… for individual personal use”.)

Contact information for authors can often be found by putting their names into search engines, along with their field of research and/or institution if known.

Paying it forward

Hopefully you’ve been able to find and benefit from free, legal copies of scholarly articles using techniques like the ones I’ve described above.  You haven’t had to pay the authors or publishers for them, but if you’ve found them beneficial, you can always pay forward, by sharing your own articles with other readers.  As I noted above, many journals allow authors to post their articles on personal, institutional, or other non-profit websites (though some may require waiting for a time after publication, or only posting certain versions of the article).  Some publishers will also agree to additional author’s rights (such as those specified in the SPARC addendum) if the author asks for them.

Many academic libraries are happy to help you share the articles you write, and provide places to post them so that they’re easily discoverable online, and preserved for posterity.  One of the services the Penn Libraries offers, for instance, is Faculty Assisted Submission, where librarians will go through your CV and post whatever they can to our institutional repository.  You can also send them any further articles you publish when they are accepted, and they will take care of posting them as soon as any required waiting period has expired, without you having to keep track of what you can post when.

I hope these tips help you in freely partaking of scholarly research, and in freely sharing your own.  If you have any questions about doing this, or experiences you’d like to share, feel free to comment here.



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Public Domain Day 2018: The 20-year alarm clock

In Washington Irving’s classic story “Rip van Winkle“, the title character follows an archaically-dressed stranger into a mountain hideaway, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the world has moved on 20 years without him.  He’s alarmed at first, but eventually figures out what has happened, adapts, and settles into the social fabric of his much-changed town.

We in the US are experiencing a similar phenomenon this Public Domain Day.  It’s now been 20 years since a full year’s worth of published content entered the public domain, when 1922 copyrights expired at the start of 1998.  Later that year, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, and the advance of the public domain has been stuck in the Warren G. Harding administration ever since.

Other countries are doing somewhat better.  Most European countries have by now regained the 20 years of public domain many of them lost when they complied with the EU Copyright Duration Directive, and they now get to freely share the works of creators who died in 1947– people like Baroness Orczy, Alfred North Whitehead, Pierre Bonnard, and Willa Cather.  (We in the US get any unpublished works by people in this group, but that’s all that’s entering the public domain here today.)  Countries like Canada that kept to the Berne Convention’s “life plus 50 years” terms are doing substantially better– today they get the works of creators who died in 1967, including Carson McCullers, Arthur Ransome, Woody Guthrie, René Magritte, and Dorothy Parker.  (The Public Domain Review’s Class of 2018 article has writeups of some these authors, and others.)

This time next year, though, the US may well get to join the party in a bigger way, and have all copyrighted 1923 publications finally enter the public domain.  It’s not a sure thing, though– lobbyists for the entertainment industry have long pressed Congress for longer copyright terms, and while there’s no bill I’m aware of that’s been introduced to do it next year, that doesn’t mean that one couldn’t be quickly rammed through.  So it’s a good time for you to let your elected representatives know that you value a robust public domain, and want no further copyright extensions.  (And if you’re hoping to elect someone new in 2018, let your candidates know this matters to you as well.)

There are other ways that those of us in the US can prepare Public Domain Wake-Up party next year.  Some of us are continuing to bring the “hidden public domain” to light over the next year.  Researchers with HathiTrust’s Copyright Review Management System have by now found over 300,000 books and other monographs that are non-obviously in the public domain.  (You may be able to help them!)  The project I’m leading to help identify public domain serial content past 1922 is also underway, and should be complete later this year.  (See an earlier post for some ways you can help with that if you like.)

Other folks are working on another set of works that libraries in the US can now share– certain works in the last 20 years of copyright, which as of today span a full 20 years of publication, from 1923 to 1942.  A provision in the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, codified in Section 108(h) of US copyright law, allows non-profit libraries and archives to digitally display and distribute such works when they are not being commercially exploited, and copies are not available at a reasonable price.  Libraries have not made much explicit use of this provision until recently, partly due to uncertainty about when and how it applies.  A preprint article by Elizabeth Townsend Gard aims to clear up this uncertainty and spur libraries to make these works more widely available.  I hope that this work is further developed and applied in the coming year.  (And I’m happy to consider works in these last 20 years of copyright for inclusion in The Online Books Page‘s listings, when the libraries that have digital copies make it clear that they’re following the section 108(h) guidelines.)

I also hope some folks take some time this year to take a good look at what we’ve digitized from 1922, and compare it to what was copyrighted that year in the US.  What portion of 1922’s creative output have we brought to light online?   What sorts of works, and what people, have we tended to miss?  Knowing where the gaps are can tell us what we might want to focus on bringing to light from 1923.  Some of that material can be posted online now; hopefully the rest can be posted starting next January.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to wait for copyrights to expire on their own to share work whose copyright you control.  You can open-license them any time you like (this post, along with many of my other works, is CC-BY licensed, for instance).  And you can let them go entirely if you like.  I tend to put my works into the public domain 14 years after publication, following the original copyright term of the US, if I see no need to extend it further.  Today I do that again, and with this post you can consider anything I published in 2003, whose copyright I still control, to have a CC0 dedication to the public domain.

Happy Public Domain Day to everyone who’s seeing new works in the public domain where they are.  And here’s to waking up to lots of new additions to the public domain in the US a year from now.

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