The Public Domain Just Got a Little Bigger
Articles,  Blog

The Public Domain Just Got a Little Bigger

So here’s some cool news to start the new
year: On January 1, for the first time in 20 years,
new works entered the public domain here in the United States. And by “new works” I mean “old works,”
as in “old works that weren’t in the public domain before.” Probably could have found a clearer phrasing
for that. Know the worst part about it? I scripted it this way! Here’s the deal: The Copyright Act of 1976
determined that all creative works first published in the United States before January 1, 1978
would enter the public domain 75 years after their original publication. Creative works published after January 1,
1978 would retain their copyright protections for the lifetime of the author, plus fifty
years. These rules remained unchanged until 1998,
when Congress passed a revision to the Copyright Act that extended the protection term by twenty
years. One of the major lobbyists in favor of extending
the term of copyright protection was The Walt Disney Corporation, which was starting to
get nervous about “Steamboat Willie,” the first official appearance of Mickey Mouse,
lapsing into the public domain, which prior to the revisions was due to occur in 2004. Under the revised provisions, works retain
their copyright protections for the life of the author plus seventy years, except for
works made for hire which are owned not by their actual author but by the company who
paid the author to create them; copyright protections on works for hire last for 120
years after the creation of the work or 95 years after the original publication of the
work, whichever comes first. Thanks to the revisions of the copyright law,
Disney gets to hang on to the copyright for “Steamboat Willie” until 2024 – which
is practically right around the corner now! The extension of the protection term also
meant that works with copyrights that had been due to expire in 1999 wouldn’t enter
the public domain until twenty years later. For twenty years no works created before 1978
have entered the public domain in the United States, except those which were intentionally
placed there by creators who voluntarily gave up their copyright protections. But now the public domain freeze is over! This year, and every year from now on, new
works – er, new old works, you know what I’m saying – will automatically enter
the public domain as their copyright protections lapse. What are some of these works? Take your pick. All works published in the United States in
1923 are now in the public domain. In 1923 Agatha Christie published The Murder
on the Links, the second appearance of Hercule Poirot. Joseph Conrad published The Rover, his final
finished novel. Kahlil Gibran published The Prophet. Virginia Woolf published her short story “Mrs.
Dalloway in Bond Street,” which she would later rewrite and expand into the novel Mrs.
Dalloway. E.E. Cummings published his first collection
of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys. And Robert Frost published New Hampshire,
the Pulitizer Prize-winning poetry collection that includes “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Jumping from literature to cinema, 1923 was
the year Cecil B. DeMille released his original version of The Ten Commandments. It was the year of The Hunchback of Notre
Dame starring Lon Chaney. Fifteen Felix the Cat animated shorts were
released, including “Felix in Hollywood,” which features Felix meeting cartoon versions
of movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Ben Turpin. And speaking of Charlie Chaplin, 1923 saw
the release of important works by Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and my personal favorite, Buster
Keaton. Chaplin released The Pilgrim, and A Woman
of Paris, a drama which he directed but chose not to star in, though he does put in an inconspiciuous
cameo as a porter. Lloyd released Why Worry? and arguably his
greatest film, Safety Last. And Keaton released two shorts: “The Balloonatic”
and “The Love Nest,” and two features: Three Ages, and Our Hospitality. Nineteen-twenty-three was also a big year
for music, as it saw the first releases of the songs “Who’s Sorry Now?”, “That
Old Gang of Mine,” and a little blues number of which I’ve always been particularly fond,
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. It was also the year of “The Charleston.” What does all this mean, practically speaking? It means that all works first published in
the United States in 1923 are now the property not of their former copyright holders, but
of the public. They belong to all of us, which means they
can not only be republished without permission, they can also be altered and adapted. You wanna record your own version of “The
Charleston”? Go for it. You wanna produce The Murder on the Links
for the stage? Godspeed, Little Dramatist! You wanna make an exhaustive six-part YouTube
series analyzing DeMille’s original Ten Commandments wherein you quote liberally from
the film in ways that go far beyond the accepted boundaries of Fair Use? Why aren’t you doing it right now?! Life is short! Go make your Ten Commandments marathon super-documentary
while there’s still breath in your lungs and a beating heart in your chest! There’s nothing to stop you! Quote! Adapt! Remix! Remake! The floodgates of the Public Domain have once
again been opened and the cultural deluge will sweep us all away! Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it glorious?! Oh, rapture! Oh, bliss! Oh, sweet millennium! In you shall I dwell for all the rest of my
years! Hosanna! Also: The Covered Wagon. Hollywood’s first true epic western, about
a group of pioneers who set out for Oregon in 1848. Top grossing film of 1923. Check it out. If you’re interested. It’s neat.


  • Wayne Keyser

    Maybe I'm too picky, but I can't share the joy over movies and books from 1923 entering the public domain. Copyright should never have exceeded 28 years with a 14-year extension. Many of the films, recordings and books are valuable, and no part of the past should be forgotten, but most of this material is just too old to matter to most people. My prediction: There will be a new move to extend copyright protection in 5 years, when Micky Mouse loses his place (Steamboat Willie was 1928).

    Note: Steamboat Willie is certainly not the next big film hit, but will it also drag the CHARADTER "Micky Mouse" into public domain? This was a problem when some – but not all – of the Sherlock Holmes stories went public.

  • Tara Blackmore

    You certainly are mentioning that movie about the dude with the stick and the water who thinks he's too gross to touch… hm… multi-videoed series, eh…?

  • Troubleshooter125

    Interesting … Eric Whitacre (a fave choral composer of mine) ran headlong into the issue of copyright protection when he adapted "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" for a Capella choir, something over 20 years ago. He had made the faux pas of not asking the Frost estate for permission to use the poem, and for whatever reason, they decided to be stuffy about it (that's lowercase "stuffy," not your good buddy!) and not grant it to him. Okay, Eric thought, and engaged his good friend and poet Charles Anthony Silvestri to create alternative lyrics. Thus was created "Sleep," one of Eric's best known choral works and my first exposure to him back in 2003.

    Makes me wonder if, now that "Stopping By Woods" is in the public domain, will he go back to his original setting.

  • scaper8

    Ars Technica just had a great article on the whole thing, why it happened now, why it failed then, and what will likely happen later.

    It also has a good breakdown of just how hard it will still be to use Mickey Mouse without Disney's approval (long story short, it will be the very specific version of Mickey that appears in Steamboat Willie and little to nothing else) that also highlights the similar problems that other works may yet face even once they've technically entered into the public domain.

    Here's the article:
    I'd recommend it to all.

  • Matthew Datcher

    My friends over at have been waiting for this for years considering the opportunity to record "new" material.

  • existential. anarchist

    Wait for the longest time i though halil cibran was an amateur turkish poet. So long for judging books for their cover xD

  • Ben Lutz

    So, does ANYONE doubt that Disney, Inc. is busy at this moment plotting to pay off a few folks in Congress to extend their copyrights for a few more decades before 2024?

  • Deondre Clark

    DC and Disney aren't going to let that Steamboat Willie or Batman copyright expire. Expect a giant increase in campaign bribes

  • The Raddest Scorpion

    I think you pushed your acting skills to as far as the constraints of vlog-style cinematography would allow anyone to push them. Next time you do something like this, I'd love to see a different camera angle and maybe a little bit of a sound backdrop, because that was great! 😀

  • Christel Headington

    Felix the Cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat.Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks…ahhhh that feels…good? It actually makes me feel old.

  • The Neo Normie

    Great Video in about 3 1/2 I'll be rejoining your patreon I just like snapping up the bargains this month for my half sisters kids and my niece as 70% off Lego is taking up my money I'm sure you understand.

  • Rinehardt 68

    Steve you need help. And I mean that in a good way that's why I love your videos LOL. Very informative to I had no idea

  • Bruce Bartup

    Hey grandmaw, can I get same more beets to go with this giant slice o' ham please?

    Nicely done Mr. Shives, very nice.

    happy as a clam
    painting the clouds with sunshine

    hmmm . . . earlier than I thought. Dad used to sing this to me and my sis when I were a nipper. Ragttime cowboy joe 1912

    thanks pal

  • katakisLives

    Lets be real its gonna be quite a while before anything most people are interested in will enter the public domain.

  • Andrew Hawkins

    Oh man, Disney sure works hard to keep their intellectual space enclosed. So much to talk about here with capitalist value extraction.

    Makes me ashamed to admit that I work in a patent office.

  • Avrysatos

    The copyright act is disgusting and stifles creativity. I could go into more detail but we all know it's true and there's no reason to say more.

  • JohnnyTheWolf

    Donald Trump: "Ha, don't worry, I'll fix that! I know lots and lots of very, very smart people in the industry who think the Public Domain is bad because they can no longer make money off things and that's so sad, because they will lose money and that's bad for the economy. So I am going to have to get rid of Public Domain and make it so people who own things can still make money off those things and that's a good thing, because now more Americans will be able to enjoy those things that they couldn't before because the Public Domain was just a bad, bad, bad deal, and as you know, I am all for good deals, I make great deals, because that's my thing, see? I'm all about good deals, for me, my family and the American people; decent, hard-working people."

  • Paul Jackson

    I like calling it copy-privilege since it isn't a "right" that they control the stuff, "not their" for decades after their death.
    I don't think it isn't property so ISCP instead of IP is good; that stands for "intellectual so called property".
    I also don't think it is owned by anyone, but if someone does claim it is owned and property then it is owned by the public with a monopoly granted by the gov't.

  • AdventuresofVindalf

    I'm so glad that the Charleston has become public domain in time for the 20s. I think we should all do zoot suits and flapper dresses and jazz again. Who's with me?

  • Kevin Berry

    Regarding your…exuberance?…there at the end:
    Maybe one fewer cups of coffee before shooting the videos, eh?
    Or, one more cup and really go for it!

    Buster Keaton is also my favorite of the big, silent 3.

  • Osiris Malkovich

    It still kills me that Batman and Superman aren't public domain because of Disney clutching at their intellectual property.

  • algi

    Just be careful and consult a lawyer before starting a business publishing this kind of work, because there might be some complications, because 1: other countries might have different copyright laws relating a work, 2: there are other protections than copyright which big companies use to defend some public domain IPs (I'm not sure you could safely make a Conan movie, even though it's public domain).

  • DahVoozel

    Holy shit. You mean the ghost of a copyright holders grand children stopped being able to sit on some creative works that no one knows about because they were copyrighted and no one cares to publish them?

  • Garrett

    I remember the head of the Wellington chapter of the New Zealand Writers Guild (a film industry union) saying that if you want to know how far back copyright protection goes, just google the creation date of the earliest disney characters as the law is always extended to make sure those are covered by it as time progresses.

  • DevilDog 2600hz

    The first act by the new Congress will be a revision. Just guessing.

    Also, the story of how the copyright of It's a Wonderful Life was lost and reclaimed is interesting. In the public domain for 19 years. That movie was everywhere.

  • tallthinkev

    Extension Act bit? Before 1st Jan 78, 95 years, and the bit about 70 years after the death of the author, which one is it?

  • RD Bury

    It's a bit more complicated in that works before 1964 are only under copyright if their owners renewed the copyright. This makes a lot of sense to me since it allowed many works into the public domain whose copyrights had little or no value, or whose owners no longer exist or can't be found. Not sure why this was changed, but because of it many works are doomed to languish in limbo, under copyright but no one benefiting from that copyright. Presumably many works will be lost to posterity because no one will benefit from trying to preserve them. But I suppose there are bigger issue to worry about in the U.S. at the moment.

  • Woohooligan Comedy

    I wonder if Patreon rewards are considered work for hire by default? … I know a lot of us use the term "commission" to describe them, but I suspect that's not a legally binding term.

  • Bunny in the Box

    Palpatine: The irony. A company built on four pillars of public domain not wanting there own material to become as such.


  • DoctorBabylon

    "an exhaustive, six part youtube series analyzing the original ten commandments" so is that what you're doing as you're followup to "an atheist reads"?

  • Jason Brunet

    So Poirot books were published after 1923, right? So is the character in the public domain or just that specific book?

  • Wes Rossal

    Can't say I see how this is good, or right. That someone's hard work can just so arbitrarily be declared public property.

    It always rubbed me the wrong way that copyright wasn't just permanent.

  • Alexander Russell

    When I watched this video, I thought, "Dang, it's good to know there are people in the world that aren't culturally flatlining". Great video, Steve, with lots of works I wasn't aware of and am know eager to check out.

  • Captain Andy

    I thought for something to be in the public domain you just had to get your girlfriend to redraw it sitting in a green chair.
    Oh wait, no. That's the law according to Bearing. 😀

  • HebaruSan

    What are all of the consequences of Steamboat Willie going public? We could distribute that specific work in its entirety without limitations, but does that automatically give everyone the right to produce new works featuring Mickey Mouse?

  • synthstatic

    Copyright should last a maximum of 70 years. Nothing from the WWII era and earlier should still be under copyright. I hope Sonny Bono is skiing into trees in Hell.

  • Brandon Taitano

    I'm not "little"… I'm 42 years old, 5'9" and entirely too heavy. Also, I prefer the term "thespian" to "dramatist". Sarcastic pedantry and snootyness aside, I've been looking for new ideas for theatre, so thank you… Now, I have to go read Murder on the Links. ;-D

  • Kat K

    I'm not sure exactly what I was witnessing there at the end, but consider me subbed. (Just for the record, I've seen your videos recommended before, but hadn't actually clicked on one until I saw your vid on Star Trek and how we should treat refugees. That made me want to look deeper into your channel and, one completely unrelated vid later, you sir have earned yourself a new follower.) Now I'm curious to see whether you agree with me on the issue of holodecks, so I'll conclude this comment with a "keep up the good work".

  • Brock Weller

    Hey Steve, just want to add a bit of murkiness to something you said in the video. You make a point that the only works that entered the public domain for the last 20 years were works whose authors placed there.

    While it's a good sentiment, and it's never been tested in court, there's a compelling legal argument that you can't actually do that. The public domain is not a license, it is a status entered into by a work after fulfilling certain statutory check marks. None of those check marks is 'the author said so'. No where in the law is it ever stated or assumed that works can enter the public domain in other ways then the time test in the law and some works of the government. It's enough of a concern that the first few versions of the Creative Commons Public Domain declaration creators could use included some extra legalese about how 'in case this is not legally possible, the author releases all possible rights' and yadda yadda yadda.

    Anyway, love your content, just wanted to throw this out there.


    Nice presentation but unfortunately not exactly accurate. Sears was able to re-copyright their catalogs back to 1912. Project Guttenberg is the best way to find out if a work is really in the public domain. Nearly all silent and early sound films in the public domain can be seen and even downloaded at The Third Man and a few other quality films were in the public domain for nearly 20 years. But all of them were re-copyrighted because of the music or the book they were based on. Best

  • M Greenwood

    The transition between joyful crying and your usual deadpan delivery made me choke on my soda. Darn you Steve I'm sending you the laundry bill. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • Ocelotl Chimalpahin

    +Steve Shives if you wanna read public domain comics I recommend these two sites that have hundreds of them! So many comics are already in the public domain & some people have found out that 80% of all novels written between 1923-1964 were never renewed so that means we have even more we didn't know about already!

    Damned Copyright lasts too damn long. A 56 year max was good enough, most didn't even renew after the first 28!

    Yay Felix the Cat belongs to us all!

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