Only weeks remain until America's Public Domain begins to grow again, for the first time in 21 years!

This New Year's Day, for the first time in 21 years, new works will enter the public domain in America: the Class of 2019 was all creating in 1923, and has been locked in copyright for 96 years.

When Disney successfully lobbied Congress to extend copyright by 20 years in 1998, it stopped the clock on the public domain. 20 years ago, everything from 1922 became public. The next year, and the year after, and every year until 2019, nothing else entered the public domain.

As Glenn Fleishman writes in Smithsonian, the result is a weirdly skewed public perception of the 1920s. 1922 was the year "the world broke in two," in the words of Willa Cather. It was the year of Ulysses, The Wasteland and Harlem Shadows. Those works have been ours to use and change and copy and play with for 20 years. The works from the next year — Robert Frost's "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening," Conan Doyle's "Our American Adventure," Willis Richardson's "The Chip Woman's Fortune," have been locked away and languishing, waiting for Jan 1, 2019.

If this pleases you as much as it does me, and you happen to be near San Francisco on January 25, please join me, Larry Lessig, Creative Commons and the Internet Archive for A Grand Re-Opening of the Public Domain.

Fleishman adds, "I wrote a parody of one of the 1923 works, Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," as a side project The bit about "fifty-one" refers to the fact that the poem's copyright may have been improperly renewed in 1951, thus leaving it in the public domain for the last 67 years — even as the Frost estate and publishers have rigorously defended it (as noted in the article), including in Eldred v. Ashcroft."

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference." How refreshing it is to quote freely from another iconic Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken," published in his poetry collection Mountain Interval in 1916. Its copyright expired in 1992 and that has made all the difference. The poem has inspired lyrics from Bruce Hornsby, Melissa Etheridge and George Strait, and its phrases have been used to sell cars, careers, computers and countless dorm room posters that feature the final lines as an exhortation to individualism that the poet likely never intended.

On January 1, HathiTrust will publish Frost's collection New Hampshire, including "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," online and it will finally be available for anyone to adapt. Perhaps no one is more bemused by that prospect than the composer Eric Whitacre. In 1999, believing the poem had already entered the public domain (the last-minute copyright extension prevented that), Whitacre accepted a commission to turn it into a choral piece. After just two performances, Whitacre said, Frost's publisher and the Frost estate shut him down, refusing to license the work. Whitacre eventually produced a different version of the work, titled "Sleep," with lyrics written for it by the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. He is now considering releasing the work in its original form. "All I wanted to do," Whitacre said, "is illuminate the original poem with music."

For the First Time in More Than 20 Years, Copyrighted Works Will Enter the Public Domain [Glenn Fleishman/Smithsonian]


Whose words these are it's clear to see,
He wrote them back in 'twenty-three.
His reps have never stopped the fight
To limit use by copyright.

James Madison would think it queer
That rights this long could stay so dear,
But courts have let extensions be
Despite the case of Eldred v.

The house of publication shakes
Off questions that renewal breaks
In 'fifty-one, a form not sent—
No one tried to show dissent.

The words are lovely, free and clear,
With oceans more that will appear.
And years to go before release,
And years to go before release.