Wandering Through the Public Domain #3

A regular exploration of public domain genre works available through Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, and Librivox.

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:

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. 

14 thoughts on “Wandering Through the Public Domain #3

  1. I’m sure that I’m not the only Filer whose eyeballs automatically auto-completed the “Wandering Through the Public Domain” title with “With Ferdinand Feghoot” …

  2. Note that the mentioned Del Rey titles have been on Project Gutenberg for a long time. They are not just now becoming available. A lot of other SF/F stuff is also available there. I realized I was an Old Phart when stuff appeared on PG by people I knew back when.

    And what is public domain is further complicated by US copyright law back before the US became a signatory to the Bern copyright convention. You will find works on PG that are the magazine serial versions of various novels, because those had a separate copyright from the book versions. Whoever published the magazine versions did not renew the copyrights and they lapsed into the public domain, but the books did not.

    Also note that what is public domain may vary by where you look. Australia used to be a Life + 50 years country. They became a Berne signatory, but work that had already lapsed was grandfathered, and did not revert to under copyright again. Interesting things are available on the Australian Project Gutenberg site in consequence. And Canada is still a Life + 50 country, with the Canadian Project Gutenberg site fighting a rear guard action to keep it so. A number of interesting things are available on Project Gutenberg Canada, and Faded Pages, the Canadian Distributed Proofreaders site. PG US is just the tip of this iceberg.


  3. Comicbookplus ( http://comicbookplus.com/?cbplus ) offers not just comic books but a number of pulp magazines and claims to be “Free and Legal”. Includes Air Wonder Stories, the 30s Amazing and Astoundings, the British New Worlds and Scoops, Planet Stories, etc. That’s in addition to a trainload of far-out comics just in the SF section alone. (The SF pulps are in the SF comics category.) They apparently make some effort to confirm public domain.

    Just saying.

  4. A 1923 book that’s possibly of interest: The Barge of Haunted Lives, by J. Aubrey Tyson.

    I picked this up at a book sale years ago. Not a completely satisfying book. (As Currey’s description at the link mentions, a lot of the “supernatural” elements — the vampires, etc. — were rationalized away at the end.)

    But I found a lot of the plot and material evoked Doc Savage (or his evil twin), enough that I wondered if Lester Dent/Kenneth Robeson might have read the book and been influenced by it. When I met Philip Jose Farmer at a convention a few years later, I mentioned the book and later sent him my copy. (This was two or three years before Farmer passed away. Never heard back, so don’t know if he had a chance to read Tyson’s novel himself, or what he thought of it.)

  5. I’ve never understood why Disney doesn’t just trademark Mickey, et al. Because distorting the entire copyright system for a corporate megamind seems … chaotic.

  6. @Techgrrl1972
    I’ve never understood why Disney doesn’t just trademark Mickey, et al.
    They have.
    But trademark protects some things, and copyright protects other things, and Disney wants it all.

  7. Genre-ish items becoming Public Domain in a few weeks:
    The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
    The Sherlock Holmes story, “The Creeping Man” by A. Conan Doyle
    Certain “archy and mehitabel” pieces by Don Marquis
    Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle and the Secret Lake, originally published in newspaper serial form in late 1923.

  8. I doubt Disney is going to go to bat for another extension. The political climate around copyright has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Disney would now be matched by other Giants of Content lobbying the other way.

  9. Did you mean: on January 1, 2019, new works by corporations will enter the public domain in the United States for the first time since 1998? Because otherwise it’s life +70 for individual authors so they will be entering the public domain at all different times

  10. @Julianna: No, I meant that all works PUBLISHED in 1923 will become public domain on January 1. Effectively that IS the corporate copyright, because I’m looking mainly at published text works (though I might wander into films from time to time) that are already available online.

    Corporate OWNERSHIP, at least in my mind, is something slightly different, as it means work for hire where the corporation owns all the rights, such as characters created by Disney animators or Marvel writers and artists (though I understand there are more variations on the latter these days) and is where trademarks intersect with copyright, something I’m not dealing with here. But to the lawyers, “corporate copyright by publication date” vs “corporate ownership” may be a distinction without a difference.

    Theoretically an unpublished work dated 1923 would also be in the public domain, but I’m not going to library archives and such to tell you all about things you can’t read anyway…

    As mentioned, “life + 70” doesn’t apply to any works published in 1923 or any that will become public domain in the next several decades as the “everything published before X” line moves forward.

    Basically, my main interest is in giving readers pointers to works that are legally available for free online, and trying to give a brief, non-professional description of how those works have become available. I’m not trying to delve into all the intricacies of copyright law because it largely makes my eyes glaze over, as well as those of most readers. That’s why my main qualifier is “published in 1922 or earlier (soon to be 1923)” OR “if published after 1923, available on Project Gutenberg, which does the copyright clearance footwork before publishing”.

    Beyond that I’m too unsure of my knowledge to try to say myself that something published post-1923 is definitely out of copyright, even if it’s available in the Internet Archive or other online places.

  11. Pingback: Wandering Through the Public Domain #4 | File 770

Comments are closed.