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Graphic Artists Guild

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Thousands of Copyrighted Works Enter the Public Domain

You know the Guild is all about protecting creators’ copyrights so that we can monetarily benefit from our hard work and control where our work is used. We also recognize that copyright law balances the needs of creators with the greater public good, and that having works enter the public domain provides a benefit to our culture as a whole. Graphic artists also rely on public domain works – works which are no longer under copyright – for reference, as source material for new works, and for inspiration.

January 1, 2019 was the first time in 21 years that works were known to be released into US public domain. That year, works from 1923 went out of copyright. That also means that every year, additional works will become public domain. This year, a trove of works from 1924 are now available for use.

Why Such a Long Gap?

Prior to 2019, the last time a mass of works was released into US public domain was 1998. In that year, works from 1922 became available free of copyright as their term of copyright expired. Changes enacted by the Copyright Extension Act of 1998 (also called the Sonny Bono Act), increased the term of copyright in general by 20 years:

  • For works created before 1978 and still in their original term of copyright, the copyright was extended to 95 years.
  • For works created but not published or registered before 1978, the term was extended to life of the author plus 70 years¹.
  • For works created after January 1, 1978, the term of copyright was extended to life of the author plus 70 years.

What Works Enter Public Domain in 2020?

A trove of materials, from A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, to George Gershwin’s composition “Rhapsody in Blue”², to works of fine art such as Georgia O’Keefe’s Flower Abstraction are out of copyright.

Check Hyperallergic and Artnews for lists of highlights of artwork from 1924. For balance, Slate has published a list of the worst from 1924 – they claim that 1924 was a lackluster year for originality. Look for a fuller list of works of all types from Public Domain Review.

Among the works entering public domain are Henri Matisse’s Landscape viewed from a Window, Edward Hopper’s New York Pavements, and Man Ray’s Ingre’s Violin.

All images via Wiki Art.

Background on the Copyright Extension Act

Prior to 1998, the term of copyright in the United States was for the life of the author plus 50 years. This was the minimum term the USA was required to extend in order to meet the requirements of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Work. The USA ratified the Berne Convention in 1989. However, European signatories of the Berne Convention had increased the term of copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years. The Copyright Extension Act brought the term of copyright in the United States in line with the European signatories.

[1] If a work created but not published before 1978 was later published before December 31, 2002, the copyright will not expire until 2048. New Terms for Copyright Protection, Library of Congress, November 1998.

[2] While musical compositions from 1924 may have entered public domain, the recorded performances, orchestrations, or arrangements of those works may still be under copyright. The Music Modernization Act of 2018 extends copyright protection for sound recordings. Sound recordings from 1924 won’t enter public domain until 2025.



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