What is Public Domain Day?
Happy Public Domain Day! On each January 1st, together with Free Content advocates from all over the world, Wikimedians celebrate Public Domain Day. This is because when a work of art (a book, a painting, or a song) is protected by copyright, that protection always has an expiration date after a certain number of years – and for legal reasons, that expiration date always falls on 31 December.
Last year’s Public Domain Day celebrations were a special occasion, because it was the first time that any protected works were released into the Public Domain in the United States since a major change in U.S. copyright law back in 1998. With copyright lapsing for masterpieces such as Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Pilgrim and Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, the event was even covered on the front page of the New York Times.
In Europe and in many other countries, where the term of protection is clearly set to seventy years after the death of the author, Public Domain Day has been a regular occurence, but no less a joyful occasion to remember creators and their works and think about new ways to share and re-use them.
What (and who) to celebrate this year
So what exactly enters the public domain today? As you can probably guess by now, the answer depends on where you live, because the exact duration of copyright is defined by national copyright laws.
In the United States, all works that were published in 1924 are released into the public domain today. This includes the original version of a well-known musical masterpiece, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (but not the orchestration that is played today, which was published later). Other works that are now out of copyright in the United States are Buster Keaton’s silent film Sherlock Jr., Agatha Christie’s detective novel The Man in the Brown Suit and the jazz standard Everybody Loves My Baby by Spencer Williams and Jack Palmer.
In countries where copyright protection is limited to 70 years after the death of the creator, such as the European Union, we can celebrate the compositions of Richard Strauss, who died in 1949 – you will surely know the iconic opening bars of his symphonic poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra, made famous through the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey. Poet and civil rights activist Sarojini Naidu also died in 1949 and remains famous to this day as the ‘Nightingale of India’. Other creators whose works have entered the Public Domain in Europe and other countries with similar copyright laws today are German-American author Klaus Mann, comic artist Robert Ripley (of ‘Believe it or Not!’ fame), and Finnish architect and designer Aino Aalto.
So if you want to record your own interpretation of Zarathustra (and use it in a space-themed film project), you can now do so without having to ask Richard Strauss’s heirs for permission. (It is probably worth noting that Richard Strauss successfully lobbied for longer copyright terms for musical works for the benefit of his children – which have now come to an end.) Wikimedians are now also free to add Klaus Mann’s novels or Sarojini Naidu’s poems to Wikisource – restrictions apply, as always, because copyright is complicated.
In other countries such as China, the statutory protection already ends 50 or 60 years after the death of the creator, so yet another set of creators and their works are celebrated today including writer Jack Kerouac and architect Walter Gropius.
Over to you!
And now over to you! Join the 2020 Public Domain Day celebrations celebrations by sharing or re-discovering a work that has become part of the public domain today. For more inspiration, see the Wikipedia article 2020 in public domain. To close, here is a section from Sarojini Naidu’s poem To a Buddha Seated on a Lotus about the Buddhist view of the circle of life:
The wind of change for ever blows
across the tumult of our way,
tomorrow’s unborn griefs depose
the sorrows of our yesterday.
Dream yields to dream, strife follows strife,
and Death unweaves the webs of Life.