Friday, August 5 2022

January 1 is Public Domain Day. This is the day when creative works beyond a certain age enter the public domain.


Among other things, January 1 is Public Domain Day. This means that copyrights expire on works that are 95 years old. So everyone is free to rewrite or remix or just play along with classic books and songs and more. NPR’s Petra Mayer reports what people did with it all.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: So here’s the problem with Public Domain Day. For 20 years this did not happen. In 1998, Congress passed a law extending current copyrights from age 75 to 95. And that meant that until two years ago, nothing new was in the public domain. That all changed on January 1, 2019. Since then a flood of popular culture from the 1920s has become available – early silent films, pop songs, books like “The Prophet”, “Mrs. Dalloway” and “The Great Gatsby”. So what do people do with all of these good things, you know, like “Gatsby?”

MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH: I was captivated by Nick.

MAYER: It’s author Michael Farris Smith. His new novel, “Nick”, comes out this month, and he imagines a life and story for “Gatsby’s” Nick Carraway. Smith says he was hooked by that moment at the end of the book where Nick suddenly realizes it’s his 30th birthday.

SMITH: And right after that, he describes it as anticipating a decade of loneliness. And that’s what really blocked me. Like, when I read the decade of loneliness line, I remember I stopped there and put the book aside.

MAYER: Smith says he saw so many parallels between Nick’s life and his at this age that he decided to write Nick’s story. Although, he says, he just assumed “The Gatsby” was in the public domain when he started writing five years ago, he was a little taken aback when his editors told him the book could not. not released until 2021. But “Nick” is one of the few high-profile works to emerge from this flood of new material in the public domain. Jennifer Jenkins is Director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School. She says a lot of what’s going on is on a smaller scale.

JENNIFER JENKINS: I got emails from parents saying, hey, my high school kid is an amazing musician. And guess what? You know, now that “Rhapsody In Blue” is free, he’s going to play it. He’s going to reinvent it. And maybe we’ll put it on YouTube.

MAYER: Some publishers have released new editions of books like “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, Jenkins says.

JENKINS: Works are becoming more and more available and in more editions, and that in itself fuels creativity. So we absolutely know that is happening.

MAYER: So why isn’t there more “Nick”? Glenn Fleishman is a journalist who has covered copyright issues.

GLENN FLEISHMAN: There are some very popular and weird copyright cases that involve a lot of lawsuits, and I think people are concerned about that.

MAYER: Fleishman has experienced some of these concerns himself. He loves the classic song “Yes We Have No Bananas”, which entered the public domain on January 1, 2019. So he organized friends at a New Years party to sing it. And they put the song on YouTube moments after midnight on January 1.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Yes, we don’t have bananas.

MAYER: Months later, Fleishman got a particular message from YouTube – not a takedown but a notice that a publisher had claimed the rights to the song.

FLEISHMAN: They really need their 15 cents of, you know, that 95 year old song if it was still copyrighted.

MAYER: Fleishman was able to report the error to YouTube. But he says there is always a deterrent effect. Even large actors will sometimes pay license fees for a work in the public domain rather than face the confusion or legal hassle. It might be a few more years before you see someone rewrite “Mrs. Dalloway” or TikTok duets trying out Buster Keaton’s stunts. But, says Jennifer Jenkins, the door is open.

JENKINS: To borrow a line from “The Great Gatsby,” we will now all have the green light to use one more year of our rich cultural background without permission or fees. And all of these works – they teach us about ourselves. We discover places we have never been, people we will never be, times we have never seen. And that in itself fuels creativity.

MAYER: Petra Mayer, NPR News.


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