Mash Up and Republish Like It's 1923

A dazzling array of works from 1923 are now available freely to scholars, artists and writers, opening up new possibilities for teaching and publishing.

January 24, 2019
 

You’ve heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Are you ready for Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: The Musical?

The renowned Robert Frost poem is now fair game for any artist or scholar who wants to adapt, mash up, personalize or otherwise republish or reconceive it. On Jan. 1, the poem, which first appeared in The New Republic in 1923, joined thousands of other American works of art, literature and music entering the public domain. A 1998 law that kept these works under strict copyright for an extra 20 years stipulated that they be made freely available in 2019. It is the first such group to enter the public domain in a generation, or in other words, since the advent of the present-day internet.

A few quiet efforts to take advantage of the new status are already building steam: Penguin is queuing up a new edition of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, with a new introduction by Rupi Kaur, a 26-year-old India-born Canadian poet. And the gaming site itch.io is holding a Gaming Like It’s 1923 competition, seeking both digital and analog games (board games, card games, etc.) that adapt works from 1923. Competitors have until Jan. 31 to submit ideas.

Tracy Fullerton, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, said that for scholars working in the digital humanities, Jan. 1 means "a tremendous new slate of works is open for consideration." The 20-year gap, she said, means that "many works couldn’t be considered until now." Fullerton said she's curious to see if independent or even "AAA" game designers, who create high-end commercial console games, "find material to adapt within these new entries into the public domain."

Fullerton, who directs the USC Game Innovation Lab, led the development of the award-winning Walden, a Game, based on Henry David Thoreau's 1854 work. She said one of the reasons she chose Walden to translate into a game was that it was in the public domain.

Others said the effect could be muted -- and that we may not even begin to see scholars teaching and re-examining these works for a while.

“In these first few days, I’m seeing a lot of ‘Gee-whiz,’” said Mike Furlough, executive director of the HathiTrust, a partnership of academic and research institutions hosted by the University of Michigan. On midnight on Jan. 1, Furlough and his colleagues unleashed a veritable tidal wave of works -- 43,104 in all -- that it published on its website, free for all. The newly released works include Edith Wharton's A Son at the Front, Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay, Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Pigeons and Bertrand and Dora Russell's The Prospects of Industrial Civilization.

Furlough expects huge interest from publishers for many of the titles, but he cautioned that it will “take some time” for them, as well as for artists and academics, to digest the enormity of intellectual property suddenly available.

Jackson R. Bryer, a professor emeritus in the University of Maryland’s English Department, said the already-widespread availability of older material via internet uploads may blunt the effect of some of the new public-domain releases.

“It’s probably less of a big deal now than it might have been, say, even 10 years ago,” he said. Bryer noted that he's editing a book that includes a study of a J. D. Salinger short story -- at the moment, he’s copyediting an essay on the story. Normally, he would have had to seek out a print edition of the story collection. Now he can see it online.

“It was written in 1946 and it’s all over the internet,” he said -- including an edition linked to the original, as published in The New Yorker.

What Could Have Been

John Kulka, editorial director of Library of America, the New York-based nonprofit that publishes new editions of literary classics, said the modernist classic works about to be freely available over the next few years “are among our most celebrated books.” Among them are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (published in 1925 and 1926, respectively). “Both of those books will be entering the public domain soon, absent a further extension,” he said. Gatsby will enter the public domain in 2021, while The Sun Also Rises will be freely available in 2022, meaning students could have access to a wider variety of less expensive editions -- as well as new interpretations.

Kulka noted that the critic Malcolm Cowley called the 1920s “a second flowering” of American literature, its literary works standing alongside those of Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman and Dickinson, among others. In general, he said, the expiration of copyright for these works is “a boon for readers, as new editions become available and as scholars are free to quote at length from these works. To paraphrase my friend the Fitzgerald scholar James West, these books really do belong to the public.”

But he said some new editions inevitably are “poorly done,” filled with typographical and other errors. “Whether or not we’re doing a service to readers or an injury depends entirely upon the quality of a particular edition.”

Google Books this year plans to release full digital editions of several 1923 works, including Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion and Wharton’s A Son at the Front, The New York Times reported recently. It also said Vintage Classics plans a new edition of Frost’s New Hampshire, which includes the famous poem that begins, “Whose woods these are I think I know.”

Penguin’s reissue of The Prophet will feature a new introduction by Kaur, the author of two books of poetry who also has 225,000 Twitter followers and 3.4 million Instagram followers.

Bryer, the Maryland English professor, said Fitzgerald's estate and publisher, Scribner, guard Gatsby's rights closely. “They have a cash cow and they ain’t letting go of it until they have to,” he said.

While several of Fitzgerald's earlier novels are already in the public domain, they're not as well-known -- but now that anyone can publish them, they'll likely see an uptick in readership, Bryer said. “The more people who are exposed to a text, the more likely the text will be explored in different ways, both by students, by teachers, by scholars -- because every generation puts its own spin on it. A great work of literature, one of the reasons it’s great is that it is endlessly analyzable, and that each person brings to that work of literature their own experience, their own knowledge, their own life study.”

“I used to say to my students, ‘These books aren’t about these characters, because these characters never existed. These books are really more about you. And when you read a great work of literature, its success largely depends on how it affects you.’ And as the you in these cases changes -- attitudes towards various things have changed -- it changes the way these books are looked at.”

Copyright watchers are celebrating the deluge of new material, but it’s a celebration tempered by what could have been. Had the 1998 federal law, among others, not taken effect, our public-domain catalog would look strikingly different: prior to 1998, a 1976 measure had already pushed back copyright expirations. Had pre-1976 copyright law been in effect today -- brace yourself -- we’d be celebrating public-domain releases of works not from 1923 … but from 1962.

Instead of working with the raw material of “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” musicians could now be adapting Bob Dylan's “Song to Woody” and the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” among others. West Side Story would already have spent a year in the public domain. As it is, the groundbreaking Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical and other works from 1961 will have to wait until 2056 to be freely available.

American literature would also look measurably different: under pre-1976 law, 2018 would have seen the release of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, among others.

“It’s a bittersweet celebration, but it’s a celebration nonetheless,” said Jennifer Jenkins, a Duke University law professor and director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Each Jan. 1, the center marks Public Domain Day, letting readers know what could have been had lawmakers not kept pushing copyright dates back.

Of the 1998 law, she said, “We hit the pause button and denied 20 years of culture to ourselves for no reason. We locked away all those works, thousands and thousands of works.”

Though Jenkins and others say they understand the importance of allowing the estates of authors, composers and others to continue earning revenue, she noted that research says these days just a small portion of works from the 1920s -- as few as 1 to 2 percent -- even see the light of day as published, copyright-protected work. That harms artists and scholars, who often struggle to find extant versions of older works.

It also squashes creativity. In 1999, composer Eric Whitacre accepted a commission to turn Frost’s famous poem into a choral work, believing that it had entered the public domain (it would have, but for the 1998 law). The poem was one of thousands of works sequestered in 1998 for an additional 20 years.

After two performances, Frost’s publisher and estate shut Whitacre down, he told Smithsonian magazine, refusing to license the work. Whitacre eventually reconceived the piece as a work titled Sleep, with new lyrics by the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. “All I wanted to do is illuminate the original poem with music,” Whitacre said.

Even with the poem now in the public domain, Whitacre has apparently lost interest. His manager, Claire Long, said by email that the composer had “decided that (after all these years) he’s not intending to seek to publish the piece with Robert Frost’s iconic and beautiful text.”

The 1998 law is often derisively referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” since it effectively kept works featuring the famous cartoon mouse out of the public domain for nearly a century: 1928’s Steamboat Willie, the first Disney film featuring Mickey Mouse, won’t enter the public domain until Jan. 1, 2024.

One person looking forward to that day: filmmaker Tim Disney, whose grandfather Roy co-founded Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio with younger brother Walt in 1923.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said of the prospect of Mickey Mouse finally entering the public domain. “It’s great. I’m excited personally about the prospect of folks getting their hands on that material and seeing what they will do with it.”

Disney also chairs the Board of Trustees of the California Institute of the Arts. Accessing material from the 1920s -- not just Disney animation -- will be exciting for CalArts students and faculty, he said.

“One of the things I love about art is that it’s got a mischievous side,” Disney said. “Humor is always involved. It can get pretty serious, but I’m looking forward to what people do with it.”

Furlough, executive director of the HathiTrust, said that while social media has created a lot of excitement around works like The Prophet and Frost's poetry, a large volume of the trust’s library consists of technical journals and reports from state governments and universities, which are vital to scholars.

HathiTrust was founded in 2008 -- “Hathi” is the Hindi word for elephant, Furlough noted. Elephants are “long-lived, trustworthy and have long memories,” he said. Its library contains 16.8 million digitized books from libraries worldwide, about 6.3 million of them now available to the public, with thousands more expected over the next several years. In addition to the 43,104 works he and colleagues made available on Jan. 1, another 10,305 were already out of copyright for a variety of reasons. In many cases, the artist’s publisher or estate simply failed to renew it on time.

As an example, he said, the Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen wrote the novel Quicksand in 1928, but Random House, her publisher, chose not to renew its copyright in the mid-1950s. It has long been available for free, rediscovered by a new generation of educators. Furlough said Quicksand is now widely taught in high school AP English classes.

With luck, said Duke’s Jenkins, lawmakers won’t act further to shield long-released intellectual property, which would push copyrights further. “The conveyor belt is on,” she said. “Someone might rediscover and breathe new life into some totally forgotten work.”

While a reimagined West Side Story will have to wait another 37 years, she said she’s excited to see what happens in 2019. “The ’20s were a long time ago,” she said, “but they were also awesome.”

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