from I Can Make this Promise
by Christine Day
When I found out I needed one more Humanities Class to fulfill my graduation requirements, I thought World Literature was a good choice. It was a Freshmen level course. I was a senior English Major in my last quarter, in those days before the Semester Conversion, and older than all the students. But not older than the professor.
Toward the end of the quarter, my professor asked to see me after class. That’s not usually a good thing, and this wasn’t an exception. I had turned in a reflection piece on a reading assignment and she asked why I hadn’t cited my sources. Well, I explained that I didn’t have sources, since the ideas I expressed were my own.
My professor actually apologized and said she’s so used to reading work from incoming Freshmen that my paper stood out. All ended well.
When we use other people’s work, we need to acknowledge it. After all, it’s only fair, and it’s the law. And it’s complicated. Countries have their own laws. Some international agreements have been made. Copyright and the internet is a topic for a scholar greater than me, and I won’t even mention YouTube, even though I just did!
Currently an artistic creation is protected for the creator’s life plus 70 years, the length of its copyright. The length of time a work can be copyrighted has been extended many times since the introduction of copyright in 1790.
Bill Clinton signed the last copyright extension into law in 1998. Called the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, it extended the previous law by 20 years. From 1978 to 1998, a work’s copyright was valid for the life of the author, artist, or composer plus 50 years. Beginning in 1998, a copyright became valid for life plus 70 years. Because of the 20 year extension, no new works entered the public domain between 1998 and 2018. Here’s an explanation from the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2013/10/25/15-years-ago-congress-kept-mickey-mouse-out-of-the-public-domain-will-they-do-it-again/ that discusses what happened to works published before 1978, which is where the base year 1923 came from.
When copyrights expire, they become part of the public domain, and are up for grabs to anyone who wants to use the material. They enter the public domain 70 years after the author, composer, or artist has passed away.
According to https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/ “The public owns [this body of work], not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.” Copyright rules were applied when Arthur Laurents published West Side Story, a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim wrote the unforgettable music and lyrics.
Shakespeare’s work is in the public domain. West Side Story (text, music, and lyrics) is protected by copyright and will be until 70 years after the last collaborator’s death. Since Stephen Sondheim is still very much alive at age 89, well, let’s just wish him good health for many, many more years.
Welcome 2020! On January 1, for the second year in a row, previously published works entered the public domain, all published in 1924. Some favorites are in this new class.
Al Jolson’s “California, Here I Come”
George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India
A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young
Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Box-Car Children (first book
in the series)
Edward Hopper’s “New York Pavements”
Diego Rivera’s fresco Day of the Dead
A few years ago I wanted to set a manuscript I wrote to a song I knew. A writer friend asked me if the tune was in the public domain. I didn’t know so I put my Librarian’s skills to work and checked folksongindex.com and https://www.pdinfo.com/pd-song-list/search-pd-songs.php. I discovered the song was written in the 1830s.
Although the title didn’t appear on the Public Domain Information Project’s page, the Olive A. Wadsworth version of the song I wanted to use dates from 1870. It’s referred to as a “traditional” folksong, so I was safe, again.
The internet is a wonderful resource. We share information with people all over the world. Much of what people post falls under “fair use,” and laws regulate fair use. While gray areas of interpretation abound, it’s often simple and always right to seek permission from the poster, before re-posting.
Here’s your blanket permission to re-post anything from this post you like. I’d appreciate acknowledgement, though!
-—stay curious! (and courteous)