Category Archives: Public Domain

Copyright Term, Disney, and “Steamboat Willie”

Posted May 25, 2022
Photo by Evan Fitzer on Unsplash

Authors Alliance thanks our research assistant, Derek Chipman, for researching and authoring this blog post.

Copyright and Disney are in the news again with the recently proposed Copyright Clause Restoration Act, legislation which would reduce the length of copyright protection as 2024, when the iconic character Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain, approaches. The bill, proposed by Senator Josh Hawley, would reduce the term of new copyrights to 56 years from its current duration—the life of the work’s author plus an additional 70 years for most works—and would apply this change retroactively to entertainment companies with over $150 billion in market capitalization (currently around 70 companies). Senator Hawley has specifically targeted Disney with his bill as according to his website and statements to the press. This blog post will provide a brief history of Disney’s relation to copyright term extensions and the public domain to contextualize the latest copyright term debate.

The first short cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, “Steamboat Willie,” was released on November 18, 1928, becoming a hit and launching Walt Disney Studio on its path to becoming an industry juggernaut. While not the first cartoon to use sound, “Steamboat Willie” was exceptionally creative with its music and sound effects, premiering only a year after Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.  “Steamboat Willie” took three months to complete with an estimated budget of $4,986 and was an immediate hit with audiences following its premiere in New York.

At the time of Mickey’s debut, copyright law protected a work for up to 56 years under the Copyright Act of 1908. Under this law, copyright protection was for an initial term of 28 years, with an option to renew for another 28 years, meaning that the cartoon short would have entered the public domain no later than 1984. However, in 1976, Congress passed a new Copyright Act which extended the term of copyright for a period of 50 years after the death of the author with a maximum of 75 years for pre-existing works, pushing Steamboat Willie’s entry into the public domain until 2003. Then, in 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was passed, extending the copyright term once again and keeping “Steam Boat Willie” from entering the public domain until January 1, 2024, almost 96 years after its debut. Disney lobbied heavily for the 1976 extension and the 1998 extension. In fact, the 1998 extension became derisively known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” due to Disney’s heavy lobbying. With a public more interested in copyright law, it seems unlikely that Disney will successfully push for another extension.

Why did Disney push for these extensions? Copyright allows Disney to control access to these original cartoons and designs. Once it has entered the public domain, “Steam Boat Willie” will be free for the public to use in new works and distribute as they see fit. However, it is important to note that later designs of the characters would still be copyrighted until their terms end. It is also important to note that while the copyright protections for the characters would end, trademark protections on the character still exist (for a rundown on the differences between trademark and copyright, check out 2020 our blog post on the topic).

“Steamboat Willie” entering the public domain will enrich and benefit the public at large as authors and creators create derivative works and new imaginings of the work. Disney itself makes various use of public domain works in some of its most popular films: Frozen and The Little Mermaid are based on Hans Christian Andersen stories from the late 19th century, The Lion King is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and numerous others are based on folktales and myths. Incredibly, “Steamboat Willie” itself made use of the public domain: one of the film’s songs was set to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw,” which was already in the public domain at the time. Disney’s reliance on the public domain and simultaneous efforts to expand the scope of copyright protection are remarkable, demonstrating how the public domain can be a potent tool for creators while the long scope of copyright protection can be a strong limitation on add-on creation.

While the latest Copyright Extension bill may in reality have more to do with topics outside of copyright, shortening the length of copyright protection could positively impact cultural exchange by allowing culturally iconic and historically important works and characters like Mickey Mouse to enter the public domain sooner than nearly a century after their debut. While the bill is unlikely to pass, having been criticized by some as inaccurate and potentially unconstitutional, its introduction is itself notable, and has the potential to bring attention to the need for carefully considering the limits of copyright protection.

The Public Domain and New Translations

Posted January 31, 2022
Photo by Scott Carroll on Unsplash

As we round out January and the celebration of new works entering the public domain this year, Authors Alliance is pleased to bring you this post on a specific type of derivative work based on a work in the public domain: new translations of familiar stories. We are grateful to Authors Alliance’s research assistant, Derek Chipman, for authoring this post.

Public Domain

Earlier this month, we celebrated the latest trove of literary works entering the public domain, including Austrian author Felix Salten’s Bambi, a Life in the Woods. Written in German in 1923 and published in English translation in 1928, this celebrated coming-of-age nature novel, the basis for the popular Disney film, is now free for authors to use in any way they wish. However, it is important to note that translations are considered derivative works which are subject to copyright protection in their own right—while the original German Language text is now in the public domain, the 1928 English translation by Whittaker Chambers will not enter the public domain until 2024, since it was published two years after the original German. Similarly, the 1942 Disney film is also a derivative work with its own term of copyright protection and will not enter the public domain until 2037, including characters unique to the film adaptation like Flower the skunk. For more information about the public domain and derivative works, see our post on the topic from last year.

Translations and Copyright

So, what does all of this mean for authors and the public at large? It means that they can now freely access and download the original German text, but will have to provide their own translation or wait for a non-copyrighted translation in their preferred language if they wish to use the text in a language other than German. However, authors are still free to use the ideas and themes of the textual work, as these types of information are not protected by copyright. This also means that publishers will no longer have to pay the copyright holder when publishing a new translation of Bambi, a Life in the Woods, potentially increasing access to the work.  For instance, this year, Jack Zipes has provided the first new available English translation since 1928 entitled The Original Bambi. Now, other translators can also translate the German original into English, or whichever language they choose, without having to obtain permission. 

Why is This Important?

Translations of literary works enable these works to reach a wider audience and expose cultural works from different languages to readers. Different translations also lead to different interpretations of a work, and this can add cultural value to the work by situating a work in our time, like a recent new translation of Beowulf beginning with “Bro!” In the case of Bambi, Zipes claims that his new version affords the reader a translation closer to the original German, which many readers may find surprisingly more violent and dark than the original Chambers translation. Zipes states that his knowledge of Austrian German captures the dark and existential nuance of Salten’s language in the original work and that the 1928 translation contained errors that contributed to the “later misinterpretation of the Disney film.” However, at least one critic still prefers the 1928 translation, showing that different translations provide readers with more options to enjoy public domain works. New translations can add something new to the work and contribute to our cultural commons, complicating our understanding of existing literary works. Now that Bambi, a Life in the Woods freely roams the public domain, we hope our readers explore it to find new sources of inspiration.

Public Domain Day 2022: Welcoming Works from 1926 to the Public Domain

Posted January 4, 2022
Montage courtesy of the Center for the Public Domain

Literary aficionados and copyright buffs alike have something to celebrate as we welcome 2022: A new batch of works published in 1926 entered the public domain on January 1st. In copyright, the public domain is the commons of material that is not protected by copyright. When a work enters the public domain, anyone may do anything they want with the work, including activities that were formerly the “exclusive right” of the copyright holder like copying, sharing, and adapting the work. 

Some of the more recognizable books entering the public domain this year include: 

  • Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
  • A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues
  • Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope
  • William Faulkner’s Soldiers’ Pay
  • Felix Salten’s Bambi

Copyright owners of works first published in the United States in 1926 needed to renew the work’s copyright in order to extend the original 28-year copyright term. Initially, the renewal term also lasted for 28 years, but over time the renewal term was extended to give the copyright holder an additional 67 years, for a total term of 95 years. This means that works that were first published in the United States in 1926—provided they were published with a copyright notice, were properly registered, and had their copyright renewed—are protected through the end of 2021. 

Once in the public domain, works can be made freely available. Organizations that have digitized text of these books, like Internet ArchiveGoogle Books, and HathiTrust, can now open up unrestricted access to the full text of these works. HathiTrust alone will open up full access to more than 35,000 titles originally published in 1926. This increased access provides richer historical context for scholarly research and opportunities for students to supplement and deepen their understanding of assigned texts. And authors who care about the long-term availability of their works may also have reason to look forward to their works eventually entering the public domain: A 2013 study found that in most cases, public domain works are actually more available to readers than all but the most recently published works. 

What’s more, public domain works can be adapted into new works of authorship, or “derivative works,” including by adapting printed books into audio books or by adapting classic books into interactive forms like video games. And the public domain provides opportunities to freely translate works to help fill the gap in works available to readers in their native language.

The Public Domain and New Derivative Works

Posted January 12, 2021
Montage of book and film covers of works entering the public domain
Montage courtesy of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain

Earlier this month, we celebrated the new batch of literary works entering the public domain, and shared with you some common ways that works enter the public domain. Once a work is in the public domain, authors and the public at large can make any use of it in any way they wish, including uses that were formerly the exclusive right of the copyright holder. One such right is the right to prepare derivative works based on the public domain work. Derivative works are new works which build off of pre-existing works, such as translations or theatrical adaptations. Today, we will discuss new uses that can be made of works that have fallen into the public domain using examples from popular films and literature. 

The Great Gatsby in 2021

One of the most well-known literary works to enter the public domain this year is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Now, authors are free to create new works drawing on the characters, plot, and expression from Fitzgerald’s original without fear of copyright liability. Since it is no longer subject to copyright protection or restrictions on its use, the text can also be read or downloaded for free online

One new derivative work based on The Great Gatsby and published just this month is Michael Farris Smith’s Nick, a new prequel. Nick imagines Nick Carroway’s life prior to his time at West Egg, explores Nick’s trauma, and describes a stay in New Orleans after World War I. While the Fitzgerald Trust, which controls the rights to Fitzgerald’s works under copyright, has been selective in granting licenses to prepare derivative works based on Gatsby in the past, it can no longer “try and safeguard the text, to guide certain projects and try to avoid unfortunate ones.” For instance, one recently licensed derivative work of Gatsby was a graphic novel published in June 2020. Fitzgerald Trustee Blake Hazard “was closely involved with the graphic novel” and selected the illustrator herself. Now, anyone is free to use Gatsby as a building block for add-on creation like graphic novels without permission from the Fitzgerald Trust. And we are sure to see new derivative works emerge in the coming months and years: trade publishers are planning new hardcover editions, and fans have recently called for a Muppet version of the novel (though we note that this is complicated by the fact that Disney controls the copyright in the Muppets).

Derivative Works in Popular Culture

Derivative works based on works that have entered the public domain are nothing new. Shakespeare’s plays—which have always existed in the public domain, since their publication predated the first copyright law—have inspired a multitude of beloved derivative works, from films Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) and She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes (Macbeth), and has inspired numerous loose retellings such as Brave New World (The Tempest) and even Disney’s The Lion King (Hamlet). 

In fact, derivative works based on public domain works will themselves eventually enter the public domain once their copyrights expire, enabling the creation of new derivative works based on now-public domain derivative works. For example, the musical and film, West Side Story, is a derivative work based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a play which itself drew heavily on Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe, such that Romeo and Juliet too could be considered a derivative work. Both Romeo and Juliet and Pyramus and Thisbe were published prior to the passage of the first copyright law, but this example illustrates how derivative works based on public domain works can lead to the evolution of popular stories over time. In this way, creating derivative works based on works in the public domain fosters the development of culture and knowledge—a core purpose of copyright law.

Reaching New Audiences with Derivative Works

Derivative works can also enable the original work to reach new audiences. Shakespeare’s plays can be daunting for contemporary readers, using unfamiliar language and conventions. But the multitude of derivative works based on Shakespeare plays brings the stories to audiences who may not be interested in reading the original works, enhancing access to the stories in the process. 

It may surprise you to learn that Disney—colossal and vocal defender of copyright protection—has for decades taken advantage of the public domain to produce some of its most popular and successful films. In the 90s, Disney co-produced with Jim Hensen studios two Muppets movies based on public domain books: A Muppet Treasure Island and A Muppet Christmas Carol, based on out-of-copyright works by Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens respectively. The list goes on—Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are all based on Grimms’ Fairy Tales; The Little Mermaid is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, as is the more recent Frozen—a retelling of Andersen’s The Snow Queen. In general, the Disney adaptations made these stories more palatable for children, such as changing the ending of The Little Mermaid from one in which “[Ariel’s] heart is broken when her prince marries someone else” and ultimately sacrifices herself rather than killing the prince, as Ursula demands, to the happily-ever-after ending we know today.

In this way, new derivative works based on public domain works can enable the original work to reach new audiences. Public domain texts can be made freely available online for anyone to read, enhancing access to those texts for those without access to the print editions. Translations are derivative works which allow public domain texts to reach audiences who lack fluency in the work’s original language, and a wide variety of adaptations—from abridged versions for less advanced readers to so-called critical editions for college students—can help the work reach readers of different demographics. 

The possibilities for add-on creation to works that have entered the public domain are endless. We encourage our members and readers to explore the public domain and discover new sources of inspiration! 

Public Domain Day 2021: Paths to the Public Domain

Posted January 5, 2021
Montage of book and film covers of works entering the public domain
Montage courtesy of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain

Last week, we celebrated a new batch of works from 1925 entering the public domain. In copyright, the public domain is the commons of material that is not protected by copyright. When a work enters the public domain, anyone may do anything they want with the work, including activities that were formerly the “exclusive right” of the copyright holder like making copies of, sharing, and adapting the work. 

Some people mistakenly think that the “public domain” means anything that is publicly available. This is wrong: The public domain has nothing to do with what is readily available for public consumption. Just because a work is freely available on the internet, for example, doesn’t mean the work is in the public domain. Under today’s copyright laws, copyright protection is automatic. This means, for example, that a photographer could take and upload a photograph to a publicly accessible website, and—despite its public availability online—unauthorized uses of the photograph may be infringing, unless the use is otherwise allowed under an exception to copyright. 

Just how do works become a part of the public domain? In this post, we’ll share some of the ways in which works enter the public domain or simply exist as a part of the public domain because of the limits of copyright. 

Copyright Expiration

One way that works become a part of the public domain is the expiration of their copyright protection. Copyright protects works for a limited time and after that, the copyright expires and works fall into the public domain. Under U.S. copyright law, as of 2021, all works first published in the United States in 1925 or earlier are now in the public domain due to copyright expiration. Copyright law has changed over time and the term of copyright is now calculated based on the life of the author. Under today’s copyright laws, works created by an individual author today won’t enter the public domain until 70 years after the author’s death.

It can be devilishly difficult to determine whether a work’s copyright has expired. For example, while works first published in the United States in 1925 or earlier are in the public domain, unpublished works created prior to 1925 may not be. We recommend Peter Hirtle’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States and Berkeley Law’s “Is it in the Public Domain?” Handbook to help you evaluate a work’s copyright status.

Failure to Comply With Formalities

While 2021 brings certainty that works first published in the United States in 1925 are in the public domain, changes in copyright duration and renewal requirements during the 20th century mean that works first published in the United States between 1926 and March 1, 1989 could also be in the public domain because their copyrights were not renewed or because the copyright owner failed to comply with other “formalities” that used to be required for copyright protection. These formalities included requirements that the copyright owner register her work with the Copyright Office and mark the work with a copyright notice upon publication. Analysis from the New York Public Library revealed that approximately 75% of copyrights for books were not renewed between 1923-1964, meaning roughly 480,000 books from this period are most likely in the public domain.

Under today’s copyright laws, authors of new published works are no longer required to comply with any formalities to be eligible for copyright protection, though there are significant benefits to doing so. 

Uncopyrightable Subject Matter

Copyright law is not unlimited. There are certain things that are seen as fundamental building blocks of creativity and authorship and are therefore simply not protected by copyright, entering the public domain automatically. 

An important category of things that are not copyrightable are facts—even if those facts are obscure or were difficult to collect. For instance, suppose that a historian spent several years reviewing field reports and compiling an exact, day-by-day chronology of military actions during the Vietnam War. Even though the historian expended significant time and resources to create this chronology, the facts themselves would be free for anyone to use. That said, the way that the facts are expressed—such as how they are articulated in an article or a book—is copyrightable. The lack of copyright protection for facts is central to copyright law: Even “asserted truths,” or information presented as factual which later turns out to be untrue, are part of the public domain. 

Ideas, themes, and scènes à faire are categories of expression that are also outside of copyright protection. These concepts are closely related, and the overarching justification for excluding them from copyright protection is that they are simply too general and standard to a particular genre or convention for an individual creator to be granted a temporary monopoly on them. Here again, though copying the words used to express the idea or theme could constitute infringement, the similarity of general ideas, themes, or other elements of a work which are standard in the treatment of a given topic cannot form the basis of an infringement claim. For more on ideas, themes, and scènes à faire, check out our post on uncopyrightable subject matter for fiction writers

Other Exclusions

The U.S. Copyright Office provides information about additional types of works and subject matter that do not qualify for copyright protection, including names, titles, and short phrases; typeface, fonts, and lettering; blank forms; and familiar symbols and designs. It is worth noting that other areas of intellectual property, such as patent or trademark law, could provide protection for categories that are not eligible for copyright protection. 

The Copyright Act provides that works created by the United States federal government are never eligible for copyright protection, though this rule does not apply to works created by U.S. state governments or foreign governments. And under the government edicts doctrine, judicial opinions, administrative rulings, legislative enactments, public ordinances, and similar official legal documents are not copyrightable for reasons of public policy. 

The U.S. Copyright Office also reminds potential registrants that works that “lack human authorship” are uncopyrightable, using as an example “a photograph taken by a monkey.” Sound familiar? 

Abandonment / No Rights Reserved  

In theory, a copyright owner can voluntarily abandon her copyright prior to the expiration of the work’s copyright term by engaging in an overt act reflecting the intent to relinquish her rights. Abandoned works then become part of the public domain, free from copyright and available for anyone to use. 

Creative Commons offers a “No Rights Reserved” tool for copyright owners who wish to waive copyright interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain. And recently, satirist Tom Lehrer added a statement to his website granting permission to the public to download and reuse his lyrics, noting that they “should be treated as though they were in the public domain.” That said, a scholarly article by Dave Fagundes and Aaron Perzanowski criticizes the current state of the law surrounding copyright abandonment. The authors assert that the lack of a clear, reliable way to abandon copyright frustrates authors who wish to abandon their copyrights, and the practical effectiveness of abandonment is undermined by the lack of a broadly accessible record of abandoned works.

Public Domain Day 2021: Welcoming Works from 1925 to the Public Domain

Posted December 29, 2020
Montage courtesy of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain

Literary aficionados and copyright buffs alike have something to celebrate as we welcome 2021: A new batch of works published in 1925 is entering the public domain on January 1. In copyright, the public domain is the commons of material that is not protected by copyright. When a work enters the public domain, anyone may do anything they want with the work, including activities that were formerly the “exclusive right” of the copyright holder like copying, sharing, and adapting the work. 

If you agree with BBC Culture’s assessment that the year 1925 was a “golden moment in literary history,” and maybe even “literature’s greatest year,” there is reason to be excited about the latest collection of books to enter the public domain in the United States. Some of the more recognizable titles include: 

Copyright owners of works first published in the United States in 1925 needed to renew the work’s copyright in order to extend the original 28-year copyright term. Initially, the renewal term also lasted for 28 years, but over time the renewal term was extended to give the copyright holder an additional 67 years, for a total term of 95 years. This means that works that were first published in the United States in 1925—provided they were published with a copyright notice, were properly registered, and had their copyright renewed—are protected through the end of 2020. 

Once in the public domain, works can be made freely available. Organizations that have digitized text of these books, like Internet Archive, Google Books, and HathiTrust, can now open up unrestricted access to the full text of these works. HathiTrust alone will open up full access to more than 35,000 titles originally published in 1925. This increased access provides richer historical context for scholarly research and opportunities for students to supplement and deepen their understanding of assigned texts. And authors who care about the long-term availability of their works may also have reason to look forward to their works eventually entering the public domain: A 2013 study found that in most cases, public domain works are actually more available to readers than all but the most recently published works. 

What’s more, public domain works can be adapted into new works of authorship, or “derivative works,” including by adapting printed books into audio books or by adapting classic books into interactive forms like video games. And the public domain provides opportunities to freely translate works to help fill the gap in works available to readers in their native language.

So what new creativity might we have to look forward to with the current collection of 1925 works entering the public domain? Blake Hazard, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter and a trustee of his literary estate offers one possibility. Hazard told the Associated Press that, as The Great Gatsby’s 95 years of copyright protection was coming to a close, “We’re now looking to a new period and trying to view it with enthusiasm, knowing some exciting things may come. […] I would love to see an inclusive adaptation of Gatsby with a diverse cast. Though the story is set in a very specific time and place, it seems to me that a retelling of this great American story could and should reflect a more diverse America.”

Ringing in the New Year with Public Domain Works from 1924

Posted January 2, 2020
Montage of Public Domain works courtesy of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain

As we ring in the New Year, authors have one more reason to celebrate: another batch of works has entered the public domain in the United States. Last year, the new year brought works published in 1923 that had previously been protected by copyright into the public domain—the first time in 20 years that published works have entered the public domain due to copyright expiration. This January 1, the trend continued as we welcomed works published in 1924 that were previously protected by copyright into the public domain. Many of these works have been out of reach long beyond their creators’ lifetimes and for decades after their commercial potential was exhausted.

According to the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke, new public domain works include Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Edith Wharton’s Old New York, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, and A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young.

While 2020 brings certainty that works first published in the United States in 1924 are in the public domain, changes in copyright duration and renewal requirements during the 20th century mean that works first published in the United States between 1925 and March 1, 1989 could also be in the public domain because their copyrights were not renewed or the copyright owner failed to comply with other “formalities” that used to be required for copyright protection. Analysis undertaken by the New York Public Library reveals that approximately 75% of copyrights for books were not renewed between 1923-1964, meaning roughly 480,000 books from this period are most likely in the public domain.

Once in the public domain, works can be made freely available and can be adapted into new works of authorship. Last year, we covered some of the benefits of the public domain:

  • The public domain provides opportunities to freely translate works to help fill the gap in stories available to children in their native language; and

Authors Alliance looks forward to the new public domain works from 1924 being made more available and to the new works that are created by building upon this rich collection.

NYPL Project Reveals Nearly 75% of Books from 1924-1964 are Likely in the Public Domain

Posted September 17, 2019
Photo of a card catalog cabinet
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Earlier this year, the New York Public Library (NYPL) announced preliminary results from an analysis of copyright registration and renewal data recorded with the U.S. Copyright Office from 1923-1964. The data reveals that of the approximately 642,000 copyrights registered for books during this period, the copyrights for approximately 162,000 (or 25%) of these books were renewed. This means that the roughly 480,000 books for which copyright was not renewed are most likely in the public domain (with a few caveats—for example, if the book was first published abroad).

The details of what, exactly, is in copyright from this period and for how long can be complicated, due to changes in copyright duration and renewal requirements during the 20th century. Shorter copyright terms, combined with a requirement to renew copyright in order to extend those terms, mean that many works published between 1923 and 1964 could have fallen out of copyright and into the public domain because their copyrights were not renewed. (On January 1, 2019, works from 1923 that were previously under copyright and renewed entered the public domain, marking the first time in 20 years that works have been added to the public domain in the United States due to term expiration.)

As the NYPL’s Sean Redmond points out, “For a long time, any book published before 1923 has surely been in the Public Domain and any book published after 1963 has positively been in copyright. Between those two dates though there is a more complex zone I’ll call the Renewal Era.” *

Identifying the copyright status of books in the so-called “Renewal Era” has taken a leap forward thanks to the pilot project undertaken at the NYPL to convert multiple volumes of the Library of Congress’ Catalog of Copyright Entries from scanned images to XML. This data, now searchable, consists of a list of books registered for copyright from 1923-1964 in the U.S., as well as list of those that had their copyright renewed during the same period. A search interface for the 1923-1964 registration and renewal records is available here.

Volunteers coordinated by Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive are now working to make these public domain books available online.

* It is also possible for works first published in the United States between January 1, 1964 and March 1, 1989 to have fallen into the public domain for failure to meet notice requirements. For more information, see Peter Hirtle’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain Chart or UC Berkeley Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic’s Public Domain Handbook.

The Public Domain and Scholarly Research: Alexandra Stern on Increased Access to the History of American Eugenics

Posted January 31, 2019
Head shot of Alexandra Stern

We are grateful to Alexandra Minna Stern for this contribution to our series of posts on the public domain. Stern is Professor and Chair of the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She also holds appointments in the Departments of History, Women’s Studies, and Obstetrics and Gynecology. She directs the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab housed in the Department of American Culture. Her research focuses on the history of eugenics, genetics, society, and justice in the United States and Latin America.


The convergence of open digital access and large-scale text scanning projects makes 2019 Public Domain day a major event for scholars of American history and culture. Thanks to HathiTrust, more than 50,000 materials from 1923 including books, films, and musical scores are available for unrestricted use and distribution.

This is a boon for historians of science and society, particularly those of us interested in the history of that misguided science of genetic selection—eugenics—that played a role in justifying racial immigration quotas and the sterilization of the “unfit” in the early twentieth-century. The eugenics era is disturbing and fascinating on its own historical terms and deserves further scrutiny. It also can serve as an ideological antecedent for key facets of the rhetoric of white nationalism that has surfaced in recent years and was on display at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.

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Celebrating New Public Domain Works: Enchanted Bunnies

Posted January 29, 2019

Illustration of a child with bugle surrounded by a circle of bunnies.

Enchanted Bunnies (1923)

Among the treasures that entered the public domain on January 1, 2019 is The Tale of the Enchanted Bunnies, a 1923 children’s book by Ruth Sawyer. Described as “a story teller with consummate gifts whose tales both oral and written should be characterized as living folk-art,”[1] Sawyer was a prolific author who started the first storytelling program for children at the New York Public Library in 1910. Sawyer won the Newbery Medal for her 1936 children’s book Roller Skates and received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1965 for her lifetime achievement in children’s literature.

Enchanted Bunnies follows Billy and Budge Bates as they break the spells placed on Lady Rabbit’s collection of silver, brass, china, alabaster, and crocheted bunnies, bringing them to life to share the events leading up to their enchantment. As Everett McNeil wrote in his October 14, 1923 review of Enchanted Bunnies in the New York Times, “children adore bunnies, even the make-believe ones… [t]his is why the little girls and boys who get Ruth Sawyer’s book, The Tale of the Enchanted Bunnies will themselves be enchanted.”[2]

Illustration of bunnies walking down path surrounded by trees.

Enchanted Bunnies (1923)

The opportunity to freely translate works to help fill the gap in stories available to children in their mother tongue is one reason to celebrate that the Enchanted Bunnies and other 1923 children’s book gems are now in the public domain. While English-speaking children have around 55,000 picture books available to them, there are only 2,000 in Portuguese and a mere 500 in Zulu.[3] Like many of her books, Enchanted Bunnies was inspired by the legends and folk tales that Sawyer gathered from various countries. Now that the book is in the public domain—more than 95 years after its initial publication—it is fitting that it is now free to be translated into any language for children around the world to enjoy.

[1] Chevalier, Tracy (ed.), Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers, St. James Press, 1989, p. 854.
[2] McNeil, Everett, What Became of the Pied Piper, New York Times, Oct. 14, 1923.
[3] For more details, see www.bookhunger.org.