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The copyright clock finally starts ticking


The Legal Genealogist can freely quote it today:

“In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, does the heart find its morning and is refreshed.”1

Today, there are no concerns about publishing this — and so much more — from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

I can — today — publish the entirety of any number of poems by one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, such as:

“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”2

I can quote at length from Howard Carter’s book, The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen.3

Or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Golden Lion.4

I can, if I want to, use clips from The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, or The Pilgrim, directed by Charlie Chaplin, or Our Hospitality, directed by Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone.

Because, finally, it happened yesterday.

Without fanfare.

Without fireworks.

And — praise be for the miracle of miracles!! — without the Congress of the United States mucking it up again.

Yesterday, 1 January 2019, the copyright clock finally started ticking again, and — for the first time in more than two decades — published works are once again leaving their copyright-protected status and entering the public domain here in the United States.

2019 copyright law

Before yesterday, the bright-line dividing point in the United States was 1923: anything legally published before 1923 was clearly out of copyright. That critical event, that last rollover of materials from copyrighted status to public domain status, took place in 1998 — and remember what that means: when copyright expires and a work goes into the public domain, we’re allowed to use it freely, any way we want, for any purpose (with some limits5), without needing permission from or payment to the creator of the work.6

In theory, of course, since copyright protection only lasts for a specific number of years, each year, we should have been getting another year’s worth of materials added to the public domain.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

And there’s a whole long backstory as to why it didn’t happen, that basically had to do with the Disney people not wanting to lose copyright protection on the film where Mickey Mouse made his debut. The amendments to the copyright statute that protected Mickey’s role in Steamboat Willie added 20 years of protection to all then-copyrighted works and provided that the copyright clock would stop, dead, on anything then-copyrighted and wouldn’t start to run again until 12:00.01 a.m. 1 January 2019.7

At that point, the statute said, after those additional 20 years, for most things, the clock would start moving again and, as it ticked over into 2019, the law said we should get an entire year’s worth of published works — everything legally published in the United States during 1923 — transferred into the public domain.8

Of course, since copyright law is a matter of statute, and any statute can always be amended, at any time up until midnight on 31 December 2018 — “the end of the calendar year in which (copyrights) would otherwise expire” — Congress could still have bollixed this up.

So, as 2018 drew to a close, all of us who watch copyright issues held our collective breath.

And — may miracles never cease — Congress didn’t manage to foul it up.

Yesterday, 1 January 2019, thousands and thousands of items passed from copyright-protected status into the public domain. Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body? (the first book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series). Even The Bobbsey Twins Camping Out by Laura Lee Hope. All published in 1923 and all, now, in the public domain.

In other words, we can finally stop saying copyright has expired for works legally published in the United States before 1923. In copyright terms, 1923 finally got here. As of yesterday, we can start saying copyright has expired for works published before 1924. And on 1 January 2020, we can include works published before 1925. And so on.9

For now, at least, finally, the copyright clock is once again ticking…


  1. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York, A.A. Knopf, 1923).
  2. Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice,” New Hampshire (New York : H. Holt & Company, 1923).
  3. Howard Carter, The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen (New York, George H. Doran Co., 1923).
  4. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Golden Lion (New York: Ballantine Books, 1923).
  5. Just as one example, I really wouldn’t use a photo of a living person without that person’s permission, even a photo that’s out of copyright, on a pornography website. Just sayin’…
  6. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Where is the public domain?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 21 Dec 2015 ( : accessed 19 Dec 2018).
  7. See generally Glenn Fleishman, “For the First Time in More Than 20 Years, Copyrighted Works Will Enter the Public Domain,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2019 online issue ( : accessed 20 Dec 2018).
  8. See generally 17 U.S.C. §305 (“All terms of copyright provided by sections 302 through 304 run to the end of the calendar year in which they would otherwise expire”).
  9. Unless of course Congress changes its mind. So keep your fingers crossed… and your eyes on Congress.
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