Public Domain Day: The Next Generation of American Works Joins the Public Domain
01/09/2020On January 1, a new cache of literature, music and art became part of the public domain as another year of copyright protection expired. Until 1998, most works created before 1978 were protected under U.S. copyright law for 75 years after creation. But in 1998, with the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, copyright protection of these older works was extended an additional 20 years, meaning that no additional works would again join the public domain until 2019. Now, at the start of each year, creative works produced more than 95 years prior become available for public use and enjoyment.
Advocates of the Copyright Extension Act, which included The Walt Disney Company, argued that the extension of copyright protection was necessary to account for longer life expectancies and to preserve income generated by protected works. Some even argued that insulating works under copyright protection would promote original artistic expression by limiting an artist’s ability to incorporate older works into his or her own creations. Of course, there are notable exceptions to these limitations, including an artist’s right to fair use of a protected work. However, lengthy copyright protection also has a darker side, leading to many works falling out of circulation or physically disintegrating years before they are admitted into the public domain.
In 2020, American works created in 1924 can now be freely reproduced, including a number of important artworks housed in New York’s most renowned institutions, such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s Flower Abstraction, George Bellows’s Dempsey and Firpo, and Pamela Bianco’s Madonna and Child, all from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of O’Keeffe; and Marsden Hartley’s Cemetery, New Mexico from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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