Understanding Copyrights and Public Domain Works

Understanding Copyrights
and Public Domain Works

Why thousands of copyrighted works
fall into the public domain every year and
how this may affect your creative output.

If you’re an artist, crafter, designer, illustrator, writer, or publisher, you need to understand copyrights and works now in the public domain. Below, see what works fell into public domain this year.

Looking Back to Public Domain Day in 2019

January 1, 2019 was the long-awaited day when thousands of copyright works entered the public domain for the first time in 21 years, to be followed every year by thousands more. This article on Open Culture explained that on that day, the copyright expired on work produced in 1923. “Then, 1924 will expire in 2020, 1925 in 2021, and so on and so forth. It means that hundreds of thousands of books, musical compositions, paintings, poems, photographs and films will become freely available to distribute, remix, and remake.”

“The public domain has been frozen in time for 20 years,” said Glenn Fleishman in this 2019 article for Smithsonian magazine. But when January 1, 2019 rolled around, it suddenly meant that “... digital compendia such as the Internet Archive, Google Books and HathiTrust will make tens of thousands of books available, with more to follow. They and others will also add heaps of newspapers, magazines, movies and other materials.”

The Sonny Bono Copyright Act

During my years of writing home-business books, I researched and studied both public domain content and copyright law because I needed to understand how all this affected not only me but the thousands of readers I was writing for, including artists, craftspeople, designers, illustrators, writers, authors, and publishers. As I wrote new editions of my various business books, I had to update the copyright law information to explain that, in 1998, Congress passed the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act,” which added 20 years to the copyright terms established before that. Can you guess who was behind the creation of this law?

Disney was worried about losing the copyright to Steamboat Willie in 2004—the film in which Mickey Mouse made his first film appearance. So they and others convinced President Clinton to add 20 years to the copyright term and name the Act in memory of the late Congressman Sonny Bono, who had been a sponsor of a similar bill but died nine months before the Act became law. That Act gave Disney and Mickey an extra 20 years of protection until 2024. It also meant that no copyrighted work would enter the public domain again until 2019.

As the Smithsonian article said, this created “a bizarre 20-year hiatus between the release of works from 1922 and those from 1923.” The 1928 version of Mickey ran out of time this year, but Disney has made it clear that it holds other copyrights and trademarks on later versions of Mickey Mouse still in force.

Works That Entered Public Domain This Year

This article on American Writers Museum lists notable works that entered public domain this year, including books (such as Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle), films, musical compositions, international works, and sound recordings (including “St. Louis Blues.”)

NOTE: You can’t automatically assume that the copyright on work with a copyright date after 2023 is in public domain. Copyright protection normally lasts 28 years from the date it is first secured unless the copyright owner files to renew the copyright. Thus, if you are creating an important work for sale that uses content that might be in public domain, you need to research to confirm this fact. For starters, visit the Copyright Office and download a PDF of Circular 22: “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work.” If you need more help than this, search for “copyright attorneys near me.”

A Guide to Public Domain Works

The “Public Domain and Creative Commons” guide will link you to nine collections of works now in public domain, such as Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, Government Publications Office, Google Books, and more.

Years ago, I spent time browsing Project Gutenberg looking for public domain books on such favorite topics of mine as arts and crafts, dogs and cats, writing, music, and the circus. I’ve never used public-domain content in my writing, but I found a few great stories that stimulated my imagination.

If you want free books to read, you’ll find 70,000 free eBooks on an amazing variety of topics, some by contemporary authors. If you're interested in reading the classics, Gutenberg offers thousands of them, along with countless short stories and novels by famous writers.

First published as a Brabec Bulletin on April 2, 2024.

Back to
Writing & Publishing T/C

All Articles T/C

Brabec Bulletin & Personal Blog Posts


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *