On New Year’s Day, 2019, hundreds of thousands of creative works will enter the public domain when their copyright protections expire. An article in Smithsonian Magazine explains the interesting phenomena of this massive expiration after 20 years with no copyright releases. 

The reason for this hiatus was the federal Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which in 1998 added 20 years to the protection of existing copyrights. Reportedly, Disney mounted a major lobby for the law because the copyright on Mickey Mouse’s first movie “Steamboat Willie” was scheduled to expire in 2004. Thanks to the Act, the film is now protected until 2024.

The practical impact of the addition of 20 years to all copyright terms was that works published in 1922 were released into the public domain two decades ago and nothing has been released since, until January 1, 2019, when copyrights from 1923 lost their protections. 

Ironically, this pause in the release of copyrighted works has coincided with the explosion of the Internet. Smithsonian comments, “We have never seen such a mass entry into the public domain in the digital age.” 

Exact changes 

Before the 20-year extension, works published before 1978 were protected for 75 years. Works after 1978 were protected for the creators’ lifetimes plus 50 years. 

Since the Extension Act, works published before 1978 are protected for 95 years and those after 1978 are protected for the authors’ lifetimes plus 70 years. 

Going forward, every New Year’s Day will see the release of many copyrighted works into the public domain. 

(Recent changes in copyright law related to music recordings may make protections in those works different.) 

Rich variety of newly public works 

Smithsonian talks about many famous works that enter the public domain in 2019, including: 

  • Poem: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
  • Books: “The World Crisis” by Winston Churchill
  • Film: “The Ten Commandments” by Cecil B. DeMille 

As one expert quoted in the article says, “We’re going to open these time capsules on a yearly basis … and potentially have our understanding of that year and all the contents change.”