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Ready for consumption: Great works from 1923

January 7, 2019

For all the resolutions in 2019 to cut down on screen time — no more Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and, yes, let’s send fewer emails and stop reading blog posts — here’s a big reason to celebrate the internet.

On Jan. 1, numerous works from 1923 will enter the public domain. In plain English: Books, movies and music could become widely available on the internet to enjoy at no cost.

Copyrights expire, meaning people can read classic books, such as Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs; watch early films, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments; or download song scores.

The 1923 works normally would have entered into the public domain in 1998, but Congress changed the copyright law that year, extending the period of protection by 20 years — to 95 from 75. Those same changes mean that works created in 1962 — which would have entered the public domain this year under the previous law — will not do so.

Copyright laws have tightened to the point that the 2019 availabilities are the first in more than 20 years. There will be much to explore for lovers of literature, films and music. (It’s another example of American exceptionalism; in the rest of the world, a work is usually protected by a copyright during the author’s life plus a certain number of years — 70, for instance — following the author’s death.)

At Duke University School of Law’s Center for the Public Domain, legal experts are celebrating the day when works become widely available, arguing persuasively that when people can share creative properties, we all benefit. Such fairy tales as “Cinderella” and “Pinocchio” inspired screen classics; Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet became reimagined in West Side Story. Creativity sparked additional creativity.

Plus, in a world of haves and have nots, having classic works widely available online means that a child in rural Kentucky or in small-town New Mexico can access books or films at their local library, or perhaps on a tablet provided at school. All at no cost.

Just as the printing press made the written word more widely available in the 15th century, so has the internet spread books, films and music around the globe. Many people cannot afford a Kindle Unlimited or Netflix subscription. They have to use internet at a local library, signing on to a public computer.

However, with works available in the public domain, the creative genius of our predecessors is out there, ready to inspire. With more than 50,000 pieces of work now available from 1923, there’s a lot of inspiration to be had.

Perhaps 2019 is not the year to give up screen time, at least not when it comes to enjoying works of art available, for the first time, in the public domain.

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