Happy Public Domain, 1923!

The District of Columbia is mainly laid out in a grid pattern, with streets running north and south, and east and west. Avenues, named for the states, cross these at odd angles, so that throughout the city (and especially downtown) the intersections carve out small triangular plots. They’re too small to build on, but if you’re lucky, you might get a parklet.

Near my apartment is one such parklet, but it’s a sad sight. It’s dedicated to Sonny Bono (1935-1998), singer, style icon and member of Congress. There was a piece of legislation named in his honor after his death that has been a more enduring legacy than the parklet, and far uglier.

Bono memorial plaque

Bare parklet from the south
Images available under license, CC-BY (Scott Wells)

Copyright law is complex and confusing, so I won’t try to unlock that here. (Neither do I recommend confusing that which is publicly available with the public domain, as some church people fall into.) But extending copyright so long benefits the few who own those rare evergreen properties, and effectively locks down useful but mostly forgotten works. Works about Universalism, say.

Under the law, works published before 1978 went from having a 75-year copyright term to 95 years. The yearly pipeline of new works entering the public domain was cut off for twenty years. And the old term was pretty darn long. For this reason, it’s easier to get books about Universalists (and much besides) from 1840 than 1940. (The issue of “orphan works” is problem, but past the purpose of this article.)

Twenty years! I remember thinking “That’ll be forever from now.”

Forever as it happens, is next week.

On January 1, 2019, new works will enter the public domain, namely works copyrighted in 1923. And each year, we’ll get another year’s works.

As a Universalist, I’m looking forward to these entering the public domain. I hope Google or some other scanning project has them in the wings to share on New Year’s Day.

If you want to read more about the works entering the public domain, Smithsonian magazine as a nice treatment.