Friday, July 3, 2020
US flag

Much classic lit set to enter the public domain

Because 1923 was a particularly fruitful year for literature in the US, many classic works of literature will fall into the public domain, free of any copyright protection, on January 1, the New York Times reports.

Swift River (in Autumn White Moutains), New Hampshire (John Anderson/iStock)

Among the works is Robert Frost’s New Hampshire, which includes the poems “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

US copyright law has been said to be more complex than tax law, especially since Congress has modified it frequently but the Constitution prevents the government from passing ex post facto laws. Because of that restriction, works fall under copyright protection according to when they are first published but Congress may have later applied an extension to those protections.

For example, the first copyright law in the US gave authors and their designees an initial 28 years of copyright protection. Then Congress made it so they could renew that protection for an additional 28 years. Then the law was changed to extend protection to 50 years after the death of the author, providing continuing protection to the estates of authors. Then that was extended to 75 and it now stands at 95 years, but the extension is based on the first publication date of the work, not the life of the author. (Writing from memory, I might have missed something. Please don’t take anything here as being legal advice.)

Other works include: Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id, PG Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves, and Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, one of her early novels featuring the detective Hercule Poirot.

Many publishers and heirs of the authors are concerned that the flood of literature that will fall into the public domain on January 1—the largest cache in some 20 years—will result in spin-offs or knock-offs of lesser literary quality. But creative types see this as a boon to the development of more great literature, much of which will serve the public schools.

Meanwhile, avid readers of the classics can expect to discover more editions of these works, which will drive the prices down considerably. Schools can therefore expect to pay lower prices for student or library copies of the works. Or, a site like Google Books could release the material, making more great literature available to the public for free.

As many of our readers know, I have a day job in addition to Voxitatis, and that job is working at the Maryland State Department of Education. I have created and am currently deploying an open-source project for developing standardized test content, and question writers using my iTem/Pra system can access many public domain documents, including the US Constitution, the letters of Abraham Lincoln, and the complete works of William Shakespeare for inclusion in stimulus material or as reading passages for the test questions they write. I’ll be adding a few of these works as the year progresses.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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