By Colleen McMahon: Fans of the public domain have been looking forward to 2019 for a very long time — 20 years to be exact! This is because on January 1, 2019, new works will enter the public domain in the United States for the first time since 1998. In this edition of “Wandering Through the Public Domain,” I want to take a brief look at how the “public domain freeze” happened.
In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) was passed by Congress. For copyrights owned by an individual, the term was extended to life of the creator plus 70 years. For copyrights owned by corporations, the term was extended to 95 years from publication or first use.
The previous update to copyright law in 1976 had done away with the need to renew copyrights for 28-year terms. The 1976 law set the term for individual copyright at life plus 50 years, or 75 years for corporate copyrights, and the implications of this latter term is what set the stage for the 1998 changes.
Under the 1976 law, Disney faced the possibility of Mickey Mouse moving into the public domain in 2003, 75 years after the release of the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willie.” Beginning in the early 1990s, Disney heavily lobbied Congress to lengthen the copyright term, joined by other large corporations like Time Warner.
Republican Congressman Sonny Bono was a vocal supporter and sponsor of copyright extension legislation in the 1990s, and his unfortunate death in a ski accident in early 1998 created additional momentum for passage of the new law. Mary Bono, the late Congressman’s widow, was appointed to finish Sonny’s term and took up the copyright cause. The CTEA was renamed “TheSonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act” and passage of the law was promoted as a way to memorialize a popular Congressman and celebrity. The law was passed by both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton in October 1998.
Up until the law was passed, works had been passing into the public domain each January as the 75-year mark was reached. Under the 75-year term, works copyrighted in 1923 would have moved into the public domain on January 1, 1999, but the 20-year extension meant that the new expiration date for 1923 works moved to 2019. The public domain limit that has been frozen at 1922 for two decades will at last begin moving again in just a few weeks.
I’ve been looking at 1923 publications and have not found much in the F/SF realm as yet. The one exception so far is H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods, a “scientific fantasy” about a utopian society in a parallel universe. There is more to come just over the horizon, as the earliest science fiction magazines began publishing in the late1920s.
In the meantime, we can still enjoy the many pre-1923 works as well as later ones where the copyright was not renewed while we look forward to a new burst of public domain access each January — at least until Congress decides to change the laws again. Mickey Mouse is back on the expiration schedule for 2023, so Disney is probably revving up their lobbying efforts even as I write this….
On to this week’s finds:
Lester Del Rey (1915-1993) is best remembered these days as an editor, particularly of the publishing imprint that still bears his name, but he was also a prolific author of science fiction in earlier years. Project Gutenberg has three Lester Del Rey novels, all of which have also been recorded through Librivox:
- Badge of Infamy (Librivox audiobook edition here)
- The Sky is Falling (Librivoxaudiobook edition here)
- PoliceYour Planet (Librivox audiobook edition here)
I’m not sure this is really science fiction, but Atom Mystery by Charles Coombs (1914-1994) is a fun kid/YA book with a trope you don’t see anymore — finding a uranium mine as a ticket to riches!
Recent Librivox releases:
The Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Samuel Butler (1851-1928) and Henry Festing Jones (1835-1902)
A collection of unpublished writings of Samuel Butler, edited after his death by Henry Festing Jones. Musings on writing, art, and philosophy, including thoughts about Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited, which are often categorized as early F/SF.
[Full disclosure: I worked on this project, recording two of the chapters!]
Mowgli: All of the Mowgli Stories from the Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling (1868-1936)
In the Jungle Books, Kipling tells 9 wonderful and exciting tales about Mowgli, the human baby raised by a pack of wolves in the jungles of India. His exploits and adventures are many and varied especially his dealing with the other animals such as his wolf mother and father and brother wolves, Baloo the wise bear who teaches him the Law of the Jungle, and in his life long battle with Shere-Kahn, the lame human-killing tiger. This edition collects all the Mowgli stories from both Jungle Book volumes and places them in chronological order.
The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne (1828-1905)
The Castle stood above the quiet little town for as long as folks remembered: barren, deserted, lonely and frightening to the townsfolk. Until one day, smoke began to ascend from the dunjon. They were warned not to go near, and when intrepid souls dared to venture to uncover the mystery of the ruined castle, they learned firsthand what supernatural terrors await inside The Castle of the Carpathians.
Short Science Fiction Collection 059 by Various
20 short science fiction stories by various authors. This volume includes stories by Lester Del Rey, H.Beam Piper, Robert Silverberg, Miriam Allen DeFord, Philip K.Dick, and others.