What is Public Domain?

(Last Updated On: February 6, 2019)
What is Public Domain?

For the first time in 20 years, new works entered public domain in 2019. The new works just now entering public domain are from 1923, which is a full 95 year gap. So what is public domain exactly – and why is it just now getting expanded?

Definition of Public Domain

Public Domain is defined in the a negative. A work in public domain is a work not protected by copyright law. This means artists and creators can freely remix, edit, and reuse content without the need to worry about copyright law. Works under copyright can be used under specific conditions, but that is difficult to navigate for some, and can lead to lawsuits. But copyright law has always had it’s limits, and works used to enter public domain after just 14 years. So what changed?

Copyright duration has been extended multiple times this century. Partially because (until very recently) there wasn’t a lot of political momentum against copyright extensions. That gave companies an easy battle when fighting for extensions. But one company in particular went to bat for copyright extensions more than once.

Disney and Copyright Law

One of the biggest players in modern copyright law is Disney. This has been the case for decades; one of the properties that Disney has invested heavily in protecting is Mickey Mouse’s precursor, Steamboat Willie. Steamboat Willie was introduced in 1928. And while Disney has not been the only company to lobby for copyright duration extension, changes to copyright have tracked suspiciously closely with the exact specifications that keep Steamboat Willie in copyright protection. Steamboat Willie isn’t projected to leave copyright protection under current law until 2023, but Mickey Mouse will still be protected under both copyright and trademark for quite some time.

Mickey Mouse Curve and Public Domain | Sporcle
Chart by Steve Schlackman

The First New Public Domain Works

2019 will see the first new infusion of works into the public domain: why? And what’s in there? Well, the push back against copyright extensions can be attributed largely to the people copyright affects the most directly: artists. Artists who want to be able to build on and adapt older works push for an end to copyright extensions. This would give them the same kind of access that previous generations had on own their pop culture.

The internet has made organizing significantly easier, and artists who want to see a more robust library of public works can find each other in ways that weren’t possible in the 1920s and 1930s. For the first time in decades, there wasn’t a major push to extend copyright as things aged out, and that’s mostly attributed to the fact that it’s not an easy, one-sided fight anymore.

Duke Law compiled a full list of what entered the public domain in 2019, and you’ll still recognize some of the creators: Agatha Christie, e.e. cummings, and Charlie Chaplin.

If this struck your fancy, check out our other history articles and Disney quizzes – you might even spot a few movies that Disney based on stories and folktales from the public domain.

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