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    Your Public Domain Day Report, 2019: YES!!!

    Today, at last, is Public Domain Day in the United States. For the first time in decades, some American copyrights were actually allowed to expire naturally, a mere thirty-nine years later than planned. So after years of blogging, every January first, about what wasn't entering public domain and what would have entered public domain under earlier laws, I can finally blog about what is entering public domain.

    Various media outlets are covering this as a strange oddity, to the point that they're trying to explain what the public domain is to a puzzled and skeptical public. But the oddity is that we've kept so much in copyright for so long. What is happening today should not be news. It is a return to normal.

    So today everything that was originally published in 1923 becomes free for anyone to republish, repurpose, or reuse. If that seems drastic to you, remember that all of those copyrights were originally set to expire in 1980. After the copyright law was revised in the late seventies, those works should still have become public domain in 1999. Ninety-five years of copyright protection is much more than enough.

    Other places have already compiled lists of the big hits becoming publicly available: Robert Frost's Pulitzer-winning collection New Hampshire, with its smash hit single "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," Harold Lloyd's classic short Safety, Last! (the one where he dangles off the clock), the Charleston, "Yes! We Have No Bananas," King Oliver's recording of "Dippermouth Blues" with his kid sidekick, Louis Armstrong. Hemingway's stories "Up in Michigan" and "My Old Man," become free for anyone to use today, and Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities, and Cather's A Lost Lady. Dorothy Sayers's detective Lord Peter Wimsey enters public domain as his first appearance does, but woe betide you if you try to publish a Wimsey mystery that draws on elements of his character from later, still-copyrighted appearances. 1923 was a busy year. We should have everything from 1962, or at least everything from 1943, but I'm happy to have the public-domain clock ticking again.

    Perhaps more importantly, anyone is now free to rescue any obscure work from 1923 that they think deserves more attention. Want to digitize an old silent film before the last copy disintegrates? Want to republish a novel from 1923 that was totally ahead of its time? Go ahead. You don't have to track down the copyright holders to pay them. A lot of works that should have already been rescued in this way haven't, because after this long copyright holders are impossible to track down. One of the problems of making copyright terms so ungodly long is that it prevents salvage and restoration efforts, because the original copyright holders have lost track or lost interest.

    We think of copyright as the right to publish, but what it really is, in practice, is the right to prevent publication. If you're making money of a novel that's in copyright, you can keep anyone else from publishing it. But copyright also means many things can't be published at all. And it frees the copyright holders, who are protected from competition, not to publish particular versions of the works they control. If Disney wanted to take the 1977 theatrical release of Star Wars out of circulation until 2073, they would have the legal right to do that.

    So Vintage Books will be republishing Frost's New Hampshire this month, right on time, in an edition that recreates the woodcut illustrations from the original publication. (Those illustrations just entered public domain today, too.) No one's been able to buy a copy of New Hampshire as a stand-alone for decades. The original publisher, Henry Holt, could have brought one out any time they liked, pictures and all. But they didn't want to. They wanted to sell you Frost's complete poems, or a selection of favorites. Imagine the Beatles's rights-holders would sell you a box set, or a collection of greatest hits, but not Sergeant Pepper's or Abbey Road. If you wanted to see the actual book of poems that Frost put together, in the form he chose at that point in his career, you basically couldn't.

    Starting now, readers will have a choice. You can still get the collected poems from Holt. You can get an individual collection of poems from Vintage. If Holt doesn't like that, they can reissue New Hampshire themselves. Maybe they'll have to commission some extra bells and whistles to make their book more attractive to buyers, like a new introduction or notes or copies of Frost's drafts. The choices will only increase. You can combine "Stopping by the Woods" with its original illustration as a poster if you want, and that's not necessarily a bad idea. In fact, putting Frost back into circulation in a competitive market economy might give the old boy some new life. It's probably good for him. In fact, it should have happened thirty years earlier.


    Happy New Year, doc!

    I'm excited about some Brecht becoming as producible as Shakespeare (great work for our times) and there must be some Fitzgerald that's been freed up, too.

    Actually, 1923 was an off publication year for Fitzgerald: just two short stories, neither of which is particularly famous, and the publication if his only play which was, ah, not a hit. He was totally en fuego from 1920 to 1922, publishing four books in three years. He had something like sixteen short stories in magazines just in 1920. In 1923 he's in transition between being the hot young popular writer he was at the start of his career and the more mature artist whose work we remember.

    The stuff from 1922 has been in public domain for decades, which means the first two novels and dozens of short stories. Those novels haven't aged well, but maybe a half-dozen of the short stories are hits: I'm particularly fond of "The Ice Palace" and "Winter Dreams."

    The big news is that Gatsby comes into public domain on January 1, 2021. Publishers are definitely going to be ready for that.

    Awww, I kinda liked the play.  And also This Side of Paradise.  But that's why Dover had dollar editions of Paradise and B&D, and some of the stories but nothing else!

    Actually, now that The Vegetable is public domain... it could be repurposed to satirize another vegetable in the White House...

    That's exactly why Dover Thrift Editions had $1 versions of those works and not others.

    I'll admit that I don't know The Vegetable.  All I can say is that it wasn't a commercial success.

    One performance and it closed.  He had such high hopes for it, too, and a lot of theatrical writing experience from Princeton.  There's honestly no reason to read it unless you're a Fitzgerald completist (I love the guy, I even have a book of the sketches he wrote at Princeton) but the inspiration for the play is pretty incredible -- he saw some quote in a magazine to the effect that "a man who doesn't aspire to be president is no better than a dog or a vegetable."  I think if he wrote it today it'd be "a man who doesn't aspire to be a billionaire." Hmmm.

    From what I understand, Dickens' popularity was cwmented on bootleg editions in the New World.

    Like Kanye!

    Yeah. Transatlantic copyright wasn't solid yet, so things copyrighted in Britain got bootlegged here. Dickens hated it; the one time he meets Poe, they spend all their time discussing international copyright reform.

    Even later, in the 20th century, DAW books managed to publish an unauthorized Lord of the Rings in the US, without paying Tolkien a cent. That's why when you buy an American copy of LOTR, from Ballantine, it comes with that statement from Tolkien about how this is the authorized version and you shouldn't buy any others.

    But to your larger question: yes. It's clear that there can be big upsides to allowing "unauthorized" circulation, and some works have only become famous because they were outside copyright. It's complicated, because there are also obvious down sides, like making zero money from those copies.

    People have been making the argument forever that if you give writing away for long enough, you'll find an audience and eventually get paid beyond your wildest dreams.  Every year, we're treated to multiple such stories.  Look, I passionately wrote my Twilight fanfic and everybody loved it and I changed the names and now it's 50 Shades and look at my new mansion!

    I mean, it happens.  It happens in music, too, that people give away CDs and mix tapes, or put all their songs online for free download and somebody gets a huge contract out of it and it just seems so easy... just let go and it will all come back to you!

    Of course, the winners in this game are really lottery winners.  The advice I was given when I was younger (advice that I failed to heed, btw, such are the temptations of giving it all away) was "people die from exposure."

    This is why I'm so glad that Genghis pays me a vast but contractually undisclosed sum to post here.

    That advice you got, was that from the very shy and very private (almost but not nearly Salinger like) Ric Flair?cheeky

    "The Nature Boy in the Rye" is one of my favorite books.

    Followed, of course, by "Seymour, a War Games Match" and "Franny & Whoooooo!"

    But the publicity you get here probably gets you ten, maybe even 12, extra clicks on articles you post on other sites!

    That's no doubt true.  The audience here is fiercely loyal.

    Hope you're not jealous, but he told me I'm making *twice* as much as you. (or was it 3x, have to look...)

    I know you have the better agent.

    Yeah, but I’m not talking about giving the writing to a publisher, etc. for free. I’m talking about managing your intellectual property to maximize profit.

    And also, I get paid ten times what you get paid here. It’s specified in my contract. Exactly ten times as much.

    To be fair, you're 10X smarter on your worst day.

    That's very kind and even more inaccurate.

    But anyway, don't feel bad. I only make half as much as Ramona.

    Ramona deserves every penny!

    Two times this, ten times that, half the other thing. No one told me there'd be math. sad

    We'll check if there's room for a Sociology major on the masthead, but times is tuff... and Doc's got the reedin' / book learnin' stuff sewn up.

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