Public Domain Day advent calendar #30: In the Orchard by Virginia Woolf

“The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” Willa Cather wrote in a preface to a 1936 collection of essays.  Many read her remark as referring to major changes in literary forms and styles underway in the early 1920s, particularly the rise of modernist and experimental literature.  We’ve already looked at Jean Toomer’s Cane, a 1923 novel using some of those new styles, in a previous calendar entry.  In that same year,  Virginia Woolf published two short stories still read today as key examples of modernist literature, employing stream-of-consciousness techniques to illuminate a slice of their main characters’ lives.  One of those stories will join the US public domain the day after tomorrow.  The other one is already there.

The story already in the public domain is “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”, which relates a shopping trip of the title character and the thoughts and memories she experiences while going out to buy gloves.  Much of what action exists in the story is internal or told in flashback, though the surface narration includes a “violent explosion” at the end whose nature is not made clear in the short story.  Woolf later reworked and expanded this short story into the book Mrs. Dalloway, which was published in 1925, and will remain under copyright in the US for a couple of years longer.

Mrs. Dalloway’s original 1923 short story, however, is already in the public domain.  It was first published in the July 1923 issue of the American literary magazine The Dial, and there was no copyright renewal filed either for the magazine issue or for the story.  (There was a renewal filed in 1953 for the 1925 book, but that renewal is too late to cover the 1923 story.)

“Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” takes place over a small portion of a day. “In the Orchard” features an even shorter slice of life: only about a second, when the main character lies in a chair outdoors on the verge of sleep, and then leaps up exclaiming “Oh, I shall be late for tea!” But as in Mrs. Dalloway’s story, the main point is not the outward action, but a depiction of all that goes on around her, and in her own thoughts.  Woolf’s shifts of perspective from Miranda lying in her chair to things happening above her and around her are reminiscent of a wide-scene painting or a cinematic pan and zoom, though the narrative relates a combination of sounds, sights and thoughts that a painting or a film can only partially convey.

“In the Orchard” was first published in the April 1923 issue of The Criterion, a British literary magazine.  Again, there’s no renewal for the magazine issue or for the short story.  But this story, unlike “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” is still under copyright in the US, at least for two more days.

Why the difference?  The reason is a trade agreement that the US made, and enacted into law, to exempt many works first published abroad from copyright formality requirements such as registration, renewal, and notice.  (I alluded to this exemption in a previous calendar entry.)  Eligible works were not only exempted from such requirements, but retroactively brought back into copyright, if they would still be under copyright as registered and renewed works.

The Copyright Office’s Circular 38A describes in detail the rules of eligibility for copyright restoration.  Here’s how they apply to these stories: Virginia Woolf was British, and her works were under copyright protection in Britain in 1996, when the copyright restorations went into effect.  So works of hers that were first published outside the US at least 30 days before their first US publication are eligible for restoration.  As I mentioned, The Criterion, where “In the Orchard” first appeared,  was published in the UK (and not, to my knowledge, in the US).  The first US publication of the story that I’m aware of, in the September 1923 issue of the American magazine Broom,  was more than 30 days after the April 1923 Criterion, so copyright restoration applies.  On the other hand, because “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”, was first published in the US magazine The Dial, that story is not eligible for copyright restoration.

In this case, the difference will be moot in two days, when “In the Orchard” joins “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the public domain at the completion of its full 95-year term.  If you haven’t read this story before, or aren’t sure you’d like its style of literature, you’ll have a good opportunity to check out this brief story then, for a little expenditure of time, and no expenditure of money.

We’ve almost reached the end of this Public Domain Day advent calendar.  If you’d like to continue reading about public domain works in the new year, though, I recommend checking out The Public Domain Review.  It regularly publishes essays about all manner of public domain works, both those newly arrived there and those that have been there for a while.  The authors of the essays are generally experts on the works they write about, and can also spend more time discussing the works and their contexts than I do here.  If you’re already a fan of the Public Domain Review, you may want to consider supporting it by buying some of its merchandise or making a donation.

One of that site’s regular features is an annual review of some of what’s coming into the public domain, both in the US and in other countries, in the coming year.  The latest in this series, Class of 2019, has just been posted, and includes a mention of the Woolf story featured in this post.

2019 update: Link to full text of “In the Orchard” as published in the September 1923 issue of Broom, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Blue Mountain Project

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #29: Success by A. A. Milne

I’ve been giving plays somewhat short shrift in this calendar so far. The only ones I’ve mentioned so far were noted in yesterday’s post as not actually joining the public domain in January.  So today I’ll discuss a play from 1923 that is joining the public domain, from a famous playwright of the time.

Many of us nowadays don’t usually think of A. A. Milne as a playwright, but up until 1923, he was largely known for his plays, and for his writing for  Punch.  Milne started contributing to that British humour magazine in 1903, and joined the staff as an assistant editor in 1906.  Before 1923 he had also published a few light novels (including the detective story The Red House Mystery and the satirical fairy tale Once on a Time).  He also wrote well over a dozen plays and screenplays, the main focus of his writing for several years after World War I ended.

Milne’s play Success, first published in 1923, was a more serious piece than some of his earlier work.  There’s a good summary of the play (in its 1926 version) in a 2012 Captive Reader blog post on his collection Four Plays.  The main character is a man who has followed the urgings of people around him into a career that is increasingly successful in the eyes of the world.  But when he meets a friend and a former love from his distant past, he regrets the path he’s taken, and dreams of the life he could have had if he hadn’t pursued the “success” the world recognizes.   The play’s retitling when it opened in New York, Give Me Yesterday, is an apt summation of its emotional focus.  So are lines like this one the main character delivers: “Success! It closes in on you […] I tried to get free – I did try, Sally – but I couldn’t. It had got me. It closes in on you.”

I suspect that Milne in 1923 had no idea that the same thing was about to happen to him and his family, on a much larger scale and more suddenly.  The following year, he published in Punch some poems about his young son Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals.  A book of those poems, titled When We Were Very Young, was published the same year and became an international best-seller, with 50,000 copies sold in its first two months on the market.  Two years later, another book made those stuffed animals the main characters, and that book, Winnie-the-Pooh, quickly became an even bigger best-seller, and remains one of the best-known and best-selling children’s books more than 90 years later.

Like his protagonist in Success, Milne felt like that the success of his children’s books had closed him in, and that he could not escape.  In 2017, Danuta Kean wrote an article in the Guardian on a reissue of Milne’s 1939 memoir, which had been aptly titled It’s Too Late Now.  Kean quotes Milne as saying “I wanted to escape from [children’s books]…  as I have always wanted to escape.  In vain. England expects the writer, like the cobbler, to stick to his last.”  Milne’s ironic fate also affected his son Christopher Robin.  Kean quotes him as saying that his father “had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”

Personally, I’ll be glad to see Milne’s children’s books join the US public domain over the next few years.  But in the public domain now, readers of Milne will have the chance to focus on the kinds of works that he wanted to be known for, before his wildly successful children’s books overwhelmed him (and his son).  And once Success joins those works in the public domain three days from now, readers may get from it a better sense of the emotional price paid for those later books.

PS:  Alexandra Alter has an informative new article in The New York Times  on the impending new arrivals to the American public domain, and their significance.  It’s good to read yourself, or to share with other people who might not be aware of what all the fuss is about.  (And I’m not just saying that because I’m one of the people mentioned in the article.)  Alter’s article mentions a number of works and authors that are also featured in this calendar, as well as some I won’t have time to discuss this month that you might be interested in as well.

2019 update: Link to full text of Success, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #28: Parisian Pierrot by Noël Coward

One of the hits of the 1923 London theater season was the musical revue London Calling!  It was the first publicly performed musical by Noël Coward, who starred in the 1923 production alongside Gertrude Lawrence, and who continued to write and perform theatrically for nearly 50 years afterwards.  With additional scripting by Ronald Jeans, additional music by Philip Braham and others, and some tap-dance choreography by a young Fred Astaire, the revue strung together a couple of dozen songs, dance routines, and sketches.  One innovative segment involved a stereoscopic shadowgraph, a then-new form of three-dimensional display that audiences viewed through special glasses.

I’d like to be able to say that the show will be in the US public domain a few days from now, like the other 1923 works I’ve been featuring in the calendar.  But I’m afraid it won’t be– at least, not in its entirety.  The problem is that performing a work in public doesn’t actually start its copyright term under US copyright law.  Up until 1977, registering a work or publishing it did start the term, but public performance of a dramatic or musical work doesn’t itself count as publication for the purposes of US copyright.  That’s why, for instance, the play Peter Pan is still under copyright in the US; even though it opened in 1904, its script wasn’t published until 1928, and that’s when its 95-year copyright term started.

It’s not clear exactly when the US copyright clock started running for London Calling! as a complete show.  It does not appear to have been registered as a play in 1923, and I haven’t found a book in the WorldCat catalog that consists of the entire show, other than some very recent publications.  Various parts of the show have been published separately over time, though.  Collections of Coward’s sketches have been published at various times, some of which include the sketch scripts from the show.  The individual songs have also been published as sheet music at different times since 1923.

One of the better-known songs of the production is “Parisian Pierrot”, written by Coward for Lawrence to sing in a “Pierrot” clown costume. The singer laments that while you may be “society’s hero” on the outside, on the inside you can have “spirits at zero”, knowing that even though “the rue de la Paix is under your sway” at present, “your star will be falling as soon as the clock goes ’round”.  Written in second-person, the song was one of Coward’s first hits, performable with a variety of singers and contexts.  Coward himself sung the song on a 1936 recording, and Julie Andrews also performed it in Star!, a 1968 film on the life of Lawrence.

With a 1923 copyright registration that was renewed in 1950, “Parisian Pierrot” joins the public domain in the US four days from now, along with some, but not all, of the other songs from London Calling!  For instance, the copyright term for “You Were Meant For Me”, another hit song from the show, appears to begin in 1924, so that song joins the public domain here one year after “Parisian Pierrot” does.

Because musical revues tend to be loose assemblages, we’re not missing out as much getting the show into the public domain piecewise as we would if it were the sort of tightly integrated dramatic production that more recent musicals tend to be. Still, I could see value in a knowledge base containing publishing history and copyright data of theatrical productions generally, so that we could determine more readily when such works join the public domain in whole or in part.

I’m a bit busy myself with a serials copyright knowledge base to take on drama as well. But if anyone else is doing it or plans to take it on, I’d love to hear about it.

2019 update: Link to piano-vocal sheet music for “Parisian Pierrot”, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Lester H. Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #27: The Invisible Monster by Sonia Greene

Visitors to newsstands in early 1923 encountered a number of significant American magazines for the first time. They could pick up the first issues of Time, with brief, breezy dispatches relating the week’s news from around the world.  (Issues of that magazine from 1923 and some years afterward are already in the public domain, due to a lack of copyright renewals.)  Or they might find dispatches from stranger, creepier worlds in another new magazine: Weird Tales, a pulp fiction magazine featuring stories of horror, fantasy, and what in a few years would be called “science fiction”.  A number of iconic genre characters such as Robert E. Howard’s Conan, C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu made their mass-media debut in the magazine.

It took a while for Weird Tales to hit its stride, but there are some notable stories in its first issues, many of which will be joining the public domain five days from now.  (Much of the content published in Weird Tales was not copyright-renewed, but most of the 1923 issues were.)  One tale that caught my interest, as much for its circumstances as for its content, is a story by Sonia Greene titled “The Invisible Monster” in the November 1923 issue (and called “The Horror of Martin’s Beach” in some later reprints).  The story features a strange sea-beast that sailors find, kill, and bring to shore, unknowingly incurring the wrath of the beast’s bigger and fiercer mother.  Able to hypnotize humans so they they both fail to see her and lose control over their body movements, the mother-beast exacts her revenge on the sailors and nearby beachgoers, dragging them to watery deaths.

The story may remind a reader today of stories with similar elements like   Beowulf and Jaws.  But it also reads like a Lovecraft story.  That’s not a coincidence: Greene and Lovecraft, who were both active in the world of amateur journalism, had met not long before.  In 1922, Greene visited Lovecraft in New England and suggested the idea for the story while they walked along the beach.  According to L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Lovecraft, Greene wrote up an outline of the story that night, and Lovecraft was so enthusiastic about the story that Greene spontaneously kissed him, the first kiss he had had since infancy.

Thus began a romance that would eventually result in the marriage of Greene and Lovecraft in 1924, as well as the publication of the story in Weird Tales in 1923.  It’s pretty clear that Lovecraft had some hand in the story that ran there. At the time, a fair bit of his income came from unsigned editing and revising of others’ stories, he appears to have shepherded it into print at Weird Tales, and some of the vocabulary in this story is distinctly Lovecraftian.  Some commenters have therefore not only added Lovecraft as an author of the story, but also credited him as the primary author, or even speculated, as de Camp does, that he wrote the whole thing from Greene’s “mere outline”.  However, both Greene and Lovecraft were experienced writers, and knowing both the tendency of attributions to gravitate to more famous writers, and of women’s writing contributions to be marginalized, I’m inclined to keep crediting Greene as the author of this story, as she is credited in the Weird Tales issue.

Sadly, Greene and Lovecraft’s relationship would soon grow strained.  Beset with financial woes and health problems after their marriage, they spent much of their time apart, were living in different cities by 1925, and by the end of the 1920s had divorced.  Lovecraft’s relationship with his genre has also been increasingly strained.  He was deeply racist, and while his stories have had a significant influence on fantasy and horror literature, many of them are also inherently infused with fear and contempt for non-white races and foreigners.  That eventually led the administrators of the World Fantasy Awards, which had used his likeness on their trophies since their establishment in 1975, to redesign the award without him in 2017.

Some writers, though, have found ways to recognize the contributions of Lovecraft and other early horror writers to the genre while still engaging unflinchingly with their racism.  One work doing this that I particularly like is Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country, where the main characters have to deal with both the forces of supernatural horror and the forces of Jim Crow– and the latter are often scarier than the former.

Ruff manages to rework flaws in Lovecraft’s 20th-century work into strengths for the story he wants to tell, and combines it with other Lovecraftian elements to make a sort of narrative alloy well suited for the 21st century.  Once “The Invisible Monster” and other stories from the first year of Weird Tales join the public domain next week, other writers will also have the chance to take their flaws and strengths and make other wonderful things with them.  I don’t know what will result, but I’d love to see what people try.

2019 update: Link to full text of “The Invisible Monster” as published in the November 1923 issue of Weird Tales, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Internet Archive.


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Public Domain Day advent calendar #26: Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward L. Bernays

“Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including in the United States.” That was the lead finding of Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report, “Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy”.  2018, in turn, has brought further revelations of how various companies, organizations and countries have manipulated social media and other Internet sites through botnets, hidden funding, astroturfing, algorithmic manipulation, and “fake news” (both in the sense of fabricated stories and in the sense of discrediting unwelcome news by calling it “fake”).

The effectiveness of the Internet in spreading propaganda and manipulating citizens is a stark contrast to early utopian visions of the Internet that assumed it would be a natural fount of knowledge and an inevitable promoter of freedom.  But it’s not a surprise to those who have studied the history of other mass media. In various times and places, newspapers, radio, films, and television have been used to spread either knowledge and encouragement, or ignorance and fear.  Neither of these outcomes is inevitable. Those who understand the effective use of mass media can promote either of them, or can learn how to defend themselves against manipulation and support trustworthy communication.

Therefore, it’s worth taking a look at what pioneers in the field known as “public relations” say about their craft, and how it can be used to shape public opinion for good or for ill.  In 1923, public relations was a new and growing field of specialization.  One of its key figures was Edward Bernays, who that year published his first book on the subject, Crystallizing Public Opinion.

Bernays’s book repeatedly cites Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book Public Opinion, a work that introduces the concept of the “manufacture of consent” through mass media.  Lippmann’s book, now in the public domain, is an influential piece of analysis; Bernays’ book refocuses many of Lippmann’s ideas (and those of others) into more of a how-to manual.

One of Bernays’s key recommendations is to look beyond the expected ways of communicating information.  Companies had been advertising for a long time, just as governments had long issued official proclamations and publications.  But getting a product or idea into the news, and talked about by the public, could easily be a more effective method of promotion.  A subtler, indirect suggestion of a viewpoint could persuade people who might resist or ignore a direct, obvious promotion.  Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, also notes the importance of the “unconscious” mind and the ego in people’s decision-making.

There are, of course, more or less ethical ways of doing the sort of indirect publicity that Bernays discusses.  In this book, however, Bernays shows more concerns about the ends of publicity than the means.  “The only difference between ‘propaganda’ and ‘education,’ really,” he writes, “is in the point of view. The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda.”  It’s seductively easy to move from that idea to an “ends justify the means” approach to public manipulation.

And not all of Bernays’s ends were good.  Some of his campaigns promoted health, racial harmony, and peace.  But he also worked for cigarette companies, particularly on campaigns to increase smoking among women, at a time when doctors were clearly establishing smoking’s links to ill health.  In the 1950s, he also promoted the interests of United Fruit against the government of Guatemala, which would eventually be overthrown in 1954 by a CIA-led coup.

Even if there are problems with who Bernays worked for, though, it’s still worth reading what Bernays has to say about how he worked,  to understand the techniques better, and where appropriate, how to counter them.  Some of what he says in 1923 seems eerily applicable today. For instance:

“Domination to-day is not a product of armies or navies or wealth or policies. It is a domination based on the one hand upon accomplished unity, and on the other hand upon the fact that opposition is generally characterized by a high degree of disunity.”

It’s not hard to trace a line from that idea to the covert social media influence campaigns in recent elections, where government agencies  simultaneously ran accounts provoking opposing sides of hot-button political issues, to foment disunity, create distractions, and discourage voting and meaningful political participation.

The US copyright on Crystallizing Public Opinion ends six days from now.  If having it more widely available and readable helps Americans to better understand and remediate an unhealthy social media environment, it will be an especially welcome (and overdue) addition to the public domain.

2019 update: Link to full text of Crystallizing Public Opinion, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #25: Christmas Day at Sea by Joseph Conrad

“In all my twenty years of wandering over the restless waters of the globe I can only remember one Christmas Day celebrated by a present given and received.”

By the time Joseph Conrad wrote that line in 1923, he had not only his twenty-year career at sea behind him, but also most of a writing career pursued on land for thirty years afterwards.  Readers familiar with his work, which includes novels like Heart of Darkness (1899), Nostromo (1904), and Lord Jim (1900), as well as short stories like “The Secret Sharer” (1910), know not to expect a light and cheery Christmas tale from Conrad.  His only earlier story set at Christmas was Typhoon (1902), where sailors fight for their lives in a storm that strikes their ship on a day that happens to be December 25.

Though Conrad himself had little use for Christmas (or Christianity generally), he had noted in a letter to his agent that stories with a link to Christmas were given ample space in December periodical issues.  That may have had something to do with his decision to write the short memoir “Christmas Day at Sea”, which ran in the December 1923 issue of the American magazine The Delineator and the December 24, 1923 issue of London’s Daily Mail.  It joins the public domain in the US seven days from today (and is already in the public domain in most other countries).

Conrad writes that on a working ship, Christmas was a day to note, but not to make a fuss over.  He underlines this last point by noting how distraction from one’s job at sea on any day of the year could be disastrous, as on the Christmas Day that his ship narrowly misses colliding with a steamer that suddenly appeared out of a thick fog.  The mood that dominates Conrad’s Christmas memoir is the sense of isolation of those at sea.  The present-giving occasion Conrad describes takes place in 1879, “long before there was any thought of wireless message”, when his ship is eighteen days out of Sydney, and encounters another ship with its sails oddly furled.

The other ship turns out to be an American whaler, two years out of New York, that has not touched land for over two hundred days.  The captain of Conrad’s ship has “an enormous bundle” of newspapers they had picked up in Sydney placed in a keg along with two boxes of figs, and tossed into the rough seas towards the whaler.  Despite “rolling desperately all the time”, the whaler manages to lower a boat, pick up the keg, and signal seven words of greeting and news to send back to America before the ships part company.

As it happened, Christmas 1923 was Joseph Conrad’s last Christmas.  He died the following August, and his younger son John renewed the copyright to his Christmas memoir in 1950.  To me, the starkness of Conrad’s 1923 essay on Christmases at sea (which he characterizes as “fair to middling… down to plainly atrocious”) helps reveal by contrast what many of us seek out in Christmas.  Specifically, there’s a yearning for connection, whether it’s in the religious sense of “God-with-us”, or in the person-to-person connections we make and renew in giving gifts, exchanging cards and letters, or sharing a festive meal.

I’ve valued being with people I love on Christmas, though there have always been some people that I can’t be with this day, for one reason or another.  So I plan to make some phone calls later today, remember some of the people I’ve spent past Christmases with, and do a little sharing online, including sending out this post.  (I’m also gratified for initiatives like the  #joinin hashtag being used on Twitter, to promote connecting with strangers over the holiday.)  I hope all of you reading this make or renew some connections today that you or others crave.   To all who celebrate it, however you do so, merry Christmas!

2019 update: Link to full text of “Christmas Day at Sea” as published in the December 1923 issue of The Delineator, now in the US public domain, courtesy of Conrad First.  (This version is somewhat different from longer versions published elsewhere.)

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #24: The Night Before Christmas (recitation with music and drawings) by Hanna van Vollenhoven and Grace Drayton

Christmas Eve is a good time to revisit Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.  In the public domain since the mid-19th century, it’s been adapted many times, and I’ve already featured a chorale adaptation by Frances McCollin in a previous calendar entry.  But there’s no limit to the number or variety of adaptations people can make to works in the public domain.  And there’s another adaptation from 1923 that’s somewhat better-known, and worth a look.

In 1923, the Boston Music Company published “The Night Before Christmas: A Spoken Song or Recitation, by Hanna Van Vollenhoven”.  Van Vollenhoven, a Dutch woman who had immigrated to New York around the time of the first World War, was a fairly well-known pianist and composer at the time, with performances on the radio and articles and tour promotions in magazines like The Musical Monitor.  It’s not surprising, then, that she was billed prominently on the cover of the piano music she wrote to accompany a recitation of the classic Christmas poem, and that the copyright to her music was renewed in 1950.

But the edition featuring Van Vollenhoven’s music may now be better known for the contributions of its other creator, artist Grace Drayton.   Trained in Philadelphia, Drayton was an early cartoonist for the Hearst syndicate, sometimes in collaboration with her sister, Margaret Gebbie Hays.  She also illustrated books and stories in magazines like St. Nicholas, and created a popular line of “Dolly Dingle” paper dolls.

Her most lasting creations are the Campbell’s Soup Kids, who she designed in 1904 and who continue to appear in Campbell’s advertising and publicity items to this day.  The Campbell Kids cast has grown and changed somewhat in appearance since Drayton’s initial unsigned drawings were published, but they still have a notable resemblance to the originals. A 2017 article by Kate Kelly at America Comes Alive shows examples of Drayton’s drawings of the Campbell Kids and other characters.

The Boston Music Company’s 1923 “Night Before Christmas” featured a color illustration by Drayton on the cover, and additional drawings by Drayton made appearances through the book’s 16 pages.  The cover illustration shows a jolly man in a red suit with white fur lining, carrying a sack full of toys leaning over two children in bed.  All the figures have the sort of round faces and rosy cheeks that also appear on Dolly Dingle and the Campbell Kids– St. Nicholas himself looks like he could be an overgrown child.  Drayton’s illustrations were copyrighted and renewed as well, and both Drayton’s pictures and Van Vollenhoven’s music will join the public domain in the US eight days from now.

I haven’t to date featured other artwork in this advent calendar, largely because it’s often difficult to say with certainty whether a given piece of art created in 1923 is joining the US public domain in 2019, is already in the public domain, or will remain under copyright.  The copyright system in the US in the early 20th century was largely designed for widely copied work, with the time of publication being the start of that work’s copyright term, or its entry into the public domain if copyright was not then claimed as required.  But it’s usually not obvious when a one-of-a-kind work of art, like a Picasso painting or a Duchamp sculpture, was “published” for the purposes of US copyright law, or if its publication met requirements for claiming copyright (requirements that themselves have changed over time, particularly for non-US works).  It’s somewhat easier to tell for artworks designed for publication, such as Drayton’s book and magazine illustrations, which tended to published, registered, and renewed (or not) much like books and magazines were.  But most such works of art, if renewed at all, were renewed as part of the publications in which they appeared.  Very few works of art have their own renewed copyrights.  The renewal for Drayton’s illustrations for “The Night Before Christmas”, for instance, is one of only 114 renewals for “prints and pictorial illustrations” filed in 1950.

Because of that renewal, and the 1950 renewal for Van Vollenhoven’s music, I can be sure that their “Night Before Christmas” book will be among the new arrivals in the American public domain in eight days.  I hope that it will be a welcome gift in the coming new year.  And I hope that all those waiting for presents from St. Nicholas tonight get welcome gifts as well.

2019 update: Link to illustrated score of The Night Before Christmas: A Spoken Song or Recitation, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music at  Baylor University.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #23: Great is Thy Faithfulness by Thomas Chisholm and William Runyan

My wife once went to a folk festival in Canada where a French-Canadian  singer talked about a folk song she’d recently discovered that she wanted to sing for the audience. She then launched into “The Water is Wide“, doing a lovely rendition of a song that the vast majority of the anglophone folk fans in that audience already knew well.

Music lovers who get together from different backgrounds often have similar experiences.  I grew up singing Catholic hymns in the US, while my wife grew up singing in a Protestant church in Canada.  Often, when attending services with our families, we’d encounter hymns that were an old favorites that everyone in the local congregation knew but that were completely new to the visiting spouse.  In some cases the hymns expressed a theology that was more compatible with one church’s doctrines than the other’s.  More often than not, though, the songs could have been sung in either church without compunction, but they simply had arisen in one community and not crossed over to the other one.

I was reminded of this the other day when looking for hymns from 1923 that will be joining the public domain shortly.  Searching online, I came across lots of references to “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, a hymn taking its title from a verse in the Book of Lamentations, with words by Thomas Chisholm and music by William Runyan.  Popularized by the Moody Bible Institute, and spread internationally through its use in Billy Graham’s crusades, the song has been printed in dozens of hymnals, was featured on The Voice, made the Billboard charts as recently as 2015, and has multiple Youtube performance videos that have over a million views.

I hadn’t heard of it before this month (though my wife had).  Having heard it now and looked over the music, I find it a lovely song that could be sung just as easily in a Catholic church as in a Protestant one.  Indeed, Lead Me, Guide Me, a Catholic hymnal emphasizing African American musical traditions, includes it in its second edition.   But that’s the only Catholic hymnal I recognize on Hymnary’s list for this song, and I don’t often see that hymnal in the whiter Catholic churches I’ve been to.

Nine days from now, this hymn will join the US public domain, along with thousands of other songs with renewed 1923 copyrights.  At that point, it will become much easier for it to spread across communities, when everyone in the US can freely copy the sheet music, sing it in public and on records without a license, and arrange and adapt it for their own communities as they see fit.

Maybe you’ll introduce this or other new public domain arrivals to new people.  If you do, even if it’s something familiar to most other people you know, I hope you’ll treat the new audience as members of what Randall Munroe calls the “lucky 10,000″.  Don’t let yourself or your audience miss out on the fun.

2019 update: Link to sheet music of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, now in the US public domain, as published in the collection Church Service Hymns (1948).  Scanned copy courtesy of




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Public Domain Day advent calendar #22: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton

In 1915 Edith Wharton published Fighting France, a collection of reports from her work aiding the French in the early days of the first World War, and a plea for Americans to intervene on France’s behalf.

Wharton continued to publish on the war in France over the next several years.  Her nonfiction works on the topic included French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), and her fiction works included The Marne (1918).  After all of these, though, came A Son at the Front, published and copyrighted in book form in 1923. It’s not one of the novels Wharton is best known for– by 1923, a war-weary public was not enthusiastic about a novel on this topic. But some critics have more recently written that it deserves revisiting, particularly in its treatment of people left behind in the war, those who came back from it, and those who did not.

Writers who revisit a subject often show an interesting development of perspective over time.  In my introduction to an online edition of Whose Body? (another 1923 novel mentioned in a previous calendar entry), I note how Lord Peter’s character, and his ideas of justice and relationships, evolve from the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel to the last.  One can also see evolution in thought and expression between Wharton’s firsthand experiences in the early days of the war, and her fictional treatment of the war, its social impact, and its devastating cost, years after the war had ended.

Ten days from now, A Son at the Front joins the public domain in the United States, and it should subsequently become readable online at places like HathiTrust.  When it does, it will be easier for many to see how the war changed people over time, and how war often looks different looking backward than it does looking forward.

2019 update: Link to full text of A Son at the Front, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #21: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Jimmie Cox

The winter solstice arrives today in the US, the day when the sun is down and out of sight for the longest time all year. It’s a good day to break out a song with a similar theme that also comes around year after year, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, by Jimmie Cox.

Just as the seasons change as the sun gets higher and lower through the year, the narrator of this blues standard finds his company to be quite different when living the life of a free-spending millionaire than when falling on hard times.  It’s a sentiment that many of the song’s listeners could relate to.

Cox published and copyrighted the song in 1923 (with the title in the registration record saying “…When You Are Down and Out”, eschewing contractions like no one I’ve heard singing the song).  Its first known recording, by Blind Bobby Baker, didn’t come out until 1927.   But in 1929, Bessie Smith released her own recording just in time for the big crash of the stock market that heralded the start of the Great Depression.  The combination of her performance and the sudden topicality of the song for many listeners made it a big hit.

Since then, the song has been performed and recorded by a wide array of musicans, keeping it fresh even as other songs I’ve discussed so far in this calendar seem more tied to their time.  Wikipedia’s list of artists who’ve covered the song reads like a Who’s Who of popular musicians of the last century, with names like Count Basie, Leadbelly, Janis Joplin, Odetta, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, and Otis Redding.  I’m probably most familiar with Eric Clapton’s version, which is a staple of his live performances, and still gets played on the radio fairly often.

For me, the song is also a reminder that while the world often is the way that the singer relates, it shouldn’t be that way.  True friends stick together, and support each other both when they’re riding high and when they’ve fallen low.  Gary Burnett discusses the song in his “Down at the Crossroads” blues and faith blog, and notes that those of us celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday in a few days are particularly reminded not to ignore the down and out.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he will consider our treatment of the “least ones” to be how we treat him, and that if we simply invoke the name of the Lord without doing his will, he may say to us “I never knew you”.

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” joins the public domain in the US eleven days from now.  By then the sun should be making notably longer appearances in the sky here.  I hope, and plan to work, for brighter days for all of us in the year to come. And I hope that a growing public domain will be at least a small part of that.




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