While scholars and pundits are busy listing the most important copyright rulings of 2018, a development that arguably beats them all is about to occur just as 2018 turns into 2019. On January 1, 2019, copyrighted works will start to age into the public domain for the first time in twenty years, beginning with works published in 1923.
Why did we go twenty years without anything aging into the public domain? Under the 1976 Copyright Act, the maximum term of protection for a copyrighted work published before 1978 was 28 years plus a renewal period of 47 years – so effectively 75 years. On October 27, 1998, President Clinton signed into law Senate Bill S. 505 (renamed the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act” in honor of the recently deceased singer-turned-congressman). This new law added an extra 20 years to the renewal period, pushing the maximum term for pre-1978 works to a whopping 95 years.
The practical effect was immediate. At the time the act was signed, we were just finishing up the year 1998, which was 75 years after 1923. So, works published in 1923, instead of becoming part of the public domain at the beginning of 1999, just stayed protected… for the next twenty years. Until now. At midnight on January 1, 2019, works published in 1923 will become part of the public domain by operation of law.
Ok, so what are the works? Well, the big story is not any individual work, but that the public domain generally is once again a healthy and thriving organism. If you simply must have a list, you can find some here and here. For my money, the most important works in the group are pieces by Matisse, Ernst and Duchamp. Other notable names that might get your attention include Agatha Christie, Cecil B. Demille, Buster Keaton and Jelly Roll Morton. The memorable novelty song “Yes! We Have No Bananas” is also part of the bunch.
Note that whether the above stated maximum terms apply to any particular pre-1978 work may depend on a variety of factors. Note also that different term rules apply to works created on or after January 1, 1978. For more information on copyright terms, we recommend the U.S. Copyright Office and/or the Cornell University Copyright Information Center.