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At Long Last… The Public Domain Expands!

“Leave it to Psmith” a novel by P.G. Wodehouse

With the start of 2019, the public domain in the United States expanded for the first time in 20 years. Since the Sonny Bono Copyright Act of 1998 went into effect, 1923 had been the cut-off year before which books published in the United States could safely be assumed to be out of copyright (or in the public domain). On January first the cut-off year incremented by one, to 1924. Barring any future changes to current copyright law, the cut-off year will continue to increment by one every January first until 2073*. This will liberate tens of thousands of works each year that Americans may read, share, cut-up, translate, or reimagine.

HathiTrust was standing by, ready to open access to volumes published in 1923!  They created a collection of over 53,000 works including novels, poems, journals, research volumes, and musical scores published in the United States in 1923 that were opened for reading access in the United States as soon as the ball dropped. The newly opened works constitute only a tiny fraction of HathiTrust’s corpus of almost 17 million volumes, and yet they are a substantial expansion of the public domain.

Over 14,000 volumes of HathiTrust’s 1923 Collection were digitized from the University of California Libraries. Newly opened UC volumes include compositions by Béla Bartók, Ernest Bloch, Gustav Holst, and Arthur Honegger; novels by Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, Aldous Huxley, and Dorothy Richardson; Poems by W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, and Edna St. Vincent Millay; and works by Albert Einstein, Max Born, and Woodrow Wilson. Included are the complete works of playwright Oscar Wilde, the collected works of naturalist W.H. Hudson, and the complete short stories of Joseph Conrad. There are also works on exploration, including the journals of Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole, and the narrative of three (failed) attempts to climb Mount Everest .

The Nature Lover volume 1, 1922-23

Opening More Works via Copyright Review

In addition to these 1923 works, many books published in the United States between 1924 and 1978 are not in copyright. Before 1978, U.S. copyright law required copyright holders to comply with with formalities such as including a copyright notice in the front matter and extending copyright through renewal. Not all authors or publishers bothered with the formalities or the renewal, and these works are also in the public domain. But determining and documenting whether a particular book is in copyright takes time and knowledge. HathiTrust has tens of thousands of books deposited into its repository every month – it is impossible to individually review each one manually for copyright. Instead, copyright determinations are made by applying an algorithm to each volume’s bibliographic metadata: all works published in the U.S. before 1924 are assumed to be in the public domain; and all works published in the U.S. in 1924 or later are assumed to be in copyright unless they are U.S. federal government documents. This means that tens of thousands of works that may actually be in the public domain are currently closed for access. However, HathiTrust’s Copyright Review Program is an ameliorating force that has individually reviewed over 600,000 volumes in the past 10 years and determined over half of these to be in the public domain.

Rights Owners Can Help!

If you are an author or publisher with a work in HathiTrust, you can do your own bit to expand the public domain, or simply allow access to your work by applying a Creative Commons License to it. HathiTrust has a simple form copyright holders may use to declare their work to be public domain (via CC Zero) or to apply a Creative Commons License.

For More Information

*Starting in 1978, the copyright term for volumes published in the U.S. is life of author plus 70 years (or for corporate works, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation). Volumes published in the U.S. previous to 1978 have (at most) a 95 year copyright.