After a twenty year hiatus, tomorrow will finally see the 95 year long copyrights of works released in 1923 expire. These 1923 films, books and songs will effectively be the first to enter the public domain in the US since 1998, and Duke University notes that it will include such classics as Charlie Chaplin’s The…


After a twenty year hiatus, tomorrow will finally see the 95 year long copyrights of works released in 1923 expire. These 1923 films, books and songs will effectively be the first to enter the public domain in the US since 1998, andDuke Universitynotes that it will include such classics as Charlie Chaplin’sThe Pilgrim,Jacob’s Roomby Viginia Woolf, and the songCharleston(based on the popular dance of the same name).

Welcoming classic works to the public domain was an annual New Year’s Day tradition. Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 directorial debut,The Kid,became public on January 1st, 1997, and was joined by the 1922 German horror classicNosferatua year later. But in 1998, Congress extended the length of copyright from 75 years to 95, or from 50 to 70 years after the author’s death. The result of the legislation was to effectively prevent any new works from entering the public domain.

which owned the rights to the original story that the film was based on. In 1993 Republic Pictures started sending out cease and desist letters to television stations that showed the film without its permission, andIt’s a Wonderful Lifeeffectively disappeared from the public domain.

It’s a similarly complicated story for the songHappy Birthday.After a two year legal battle, in 2015 a judge ruled that the music publisher Warner/Chappell could no longer claim copyright over the song’s commercial use, since its copyright only covered specific piano arrangements. The song’s melody is originally thought to have been composed all the way back in 1893.

Of course, these works are just the ones we know about. A significant benefit of the public domain is in protecting the films, songs, and books that would otherwise disappear from the public record because it’s not profitable enough for their rights holders to restore or republish them. After 95 years, many of these will have already disappeared. Hopefully, in 2019, the process of unearthing those that haven’t can begin.

If you’re looking to explore some of the works that will shortly become freely available, thenDuke UniversityandThe Public Domain Reviewhave compiled lists, while the latter also has a collection of online resources that publish public domain works.

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