Public Domain in 2019
(Cover art: Hopper, E. (1923). The Locomotive. Retrieved from https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.137001.html)
2019 is a big year for copyright in the US. January 1st marked the first mass release of materials into the public domain since 1998, when the Sonny Bono Act passed and pushed the amount of time after a work was created that it would be released to the public domain up to 95 years (“Public Domain Day 2019,” 2019). This means as of January 1, 2019, anything made in 1923 or earlier is in the public domain. There are works published after 1923 that are in the Public Domain because they were not properly copyrighted or because creator’s purposefully chose to release their work to the public domain.
Cecil B. DeMille. (1923). The Ten Commandments. Retrieved from http://archive.org/details/TheTenCommandments1923NR_201503
But what does this mean for you? Public Domain means that materials, including books, poems, images, film, and any other materials that can be copyrighted are available for free use by anyone, meaning you can create a work of art that contains the full text of Robert Frost’s “New Hampshire,” or that you can have free access to the complete text of Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room, or that you can host a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Pilgrim” without acquiring the Public Performance Rights.
Mack, C., & Johnson, J. (1923). Charleston. Harms Incorporated. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/mmb-vp/208
That being said, assuring something is in the public domain or finding it now that it is can be difficult. It’s easier to prove a copyright exists than that it doesn’t. As well, while a lot of things technically entered the public domain, years of neglect and other factors have led to them being ruined or lost entirely, particularly early films. Penrose Library recently joined Hathitrust, a partnership of academic & research institutions who were responsible for much of the digitization the created Google Books. Hathitrust has put together a collection of the over 50,000 works in the Public Domain they have digitized. These works can be downloaded whole, text-mined, repurposed, and re-used freely. Other massive digital collections from the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress have filters to show you only public domain works.
For more information on copyright check out our guide.