In 1998, the US Congress retroactively extended the copyright on US works, placing public domain works back into copyright and forestalling the entry into the public domain of a great mass of works that were soon to become public domain; now, 20 years later with no copyright term extension in sight, the US public domain is about to receive the first of many annual infusions to come, a great mass of works that will be free for all to use.
Included in the 2019 tranche: William Carlos Williams's The Great American Novel; Charlie Chaplain's The Pilgrim, and Cecil B DeMille's 10 Commandments.
As Glenn Fleishman explains in The Atlantic, the copyright on these ancient works is a complex muddle that makes it difficult or even impossible to figure out the copyright status of a given work; only by placing them in the public domain can we be sure that they're freely usable and thus liable to being kept alive in the public imagination.
The reason that New Year's Day 2019 has special significance arises from the 1976 changes in copyright law's retroactive extensions. First, the 1976 law extended the 56-year period (28 plus an equal renewal) to 75 years. That meant work through 1922 was protected until 1998. Then, in 1998, the Sonny Bono Act also fixed a period of 95 years for anything placed under copyright from 1923 to 1977, after which the measure isn't fixed, but based on when an author perishes. Hence the long gap from 1998 until now, and why the drought's about to end.
Of course, it's never easy. If you published something between 1923 and 1963 and wanted to renew copyright, the law required registration with the U.S. Copyright Office at any point in the first 28 years of copyright, followed at the 28-year mark with the renewal request. Without both a registration and a renewal, anything between 1923 and 1963 is already in the public domain. Many books, songs, and other printed media were never renewed by the author or publisher due to lack of sales or interest, an author's death, or a publisher's shutting down or bankruptcy. One estimate from 2011 suggests about 90 percent of works published in the 1920s haven't been renewed. That number shifts to 60 percent or so for works from the 1940s. But there are murky issues about ownership and other factors for as many as 30 percent of books from 1923 to 1963. It's impossible to determine copyright status easily for them.
It's easier to prove a renewal was issued than not, making it difficult for those who want to make use of material without any risk of challenge. Jennifer Jenkins, the director of Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain, says, "Even if works from 1923 technically entered the public domain earlier because of nonrenewal, next year will be different, because then we'll know for sure that these works are in the public domain without tedious research."
A Mass of Copyrighted Works Will Soon Enter the Public Domain [Glenn Fleishman/The Atlantic]