Public Domain Bonanza Offers Access to Previously Copyrighted Works

The recent Public Domain Day celebrated a raft of new creative works whose copyrights have expired, making them freely available to all. And educators should take note.

by / January 7, 2019

New Year’s party hat and noisemaker sales recently got a boost because January 1, 2019 was also Public Domain Day. And for those that celebrate this occasion, 2019 is an especially notable year.

Thanks to an odd “fix” added to American copyright laws in 1998, there’s been a twenty-year gap since the last Public Domain Day. Meaning, until now, any works created or published since 1923 were governed by copyright laws and couldn’t be freely used, copied, distributed or adapted. But with the 95-year waiting period for U.S. copyrights now expired for the year 1923, those who use public domain resources, which should include many educators and students, have a new trove of opportunities. And for the next several decades, each January 1st will unleash another year’s worth of new public domain works.

Teachers wanting to electronically post Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening for students’ reading can now do so. And a student inspired to record a rap version of a selection from Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Pigeons may also freely proceed. And if you’re inclined to edit and remake Cecile B. DeMille’s 1923 film The 10 Commandments as a satirical spoof, go for it.

The laws that govern American copyrights and explain the peculiar twenty year gap for works now entering the public domain (looking at you, Mickey Mouse and Sonny Bono) are well covered in recent articles from The Atlantic and The Smithsonian.

And the current bonanza of new public domain materials presents educators with a prime opportunity to reconsider various aspects of copyright law – including Public Domain and Fair Use – and what, in the digital era, teachers and students should know about how to legally and effectively leverage these resources.

But first some definitions, with legalese from

Copyright. Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that protects original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.

Fair Use. Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances —such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

Public Domain. A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it’s no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.

And there’s also an important addition to the legal but non-government controlled copyright world:

Creative Commons. The Creative Commons (CC) copyright licenses provide an option to the traditional “all rights reserved” of copyright laws. The CC tools offer creators a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their work.

Educators have long misunderstood and, let’s be honest, selectively ignored the regulations for copyright and fair use. And we have also been lax in educating our students on how to adhere to these laws. There are many good websites, including those listed below, that can help teachers educate themselves and their students on how to stay within the copyright boundaries.

However, I know many educators, myself included, who instead of navigating the often confusing copyright and fair use terrain, now primarily focus themselves and their students on using public domain and Creative Commons resources.

I’m a fan of The Public Domain Review online journal, due to the interesting and esoteric works it features. I’ve used materials discovered here in various projects and it’s given me a deeper appreciation for the vast world of public domain creations that exist out there, free for the taking.

The Hathi Trust Digital Library provides a good searchable source for public domain materials, and it’s included in a recent Motherboard article that guides readers to a number of such sites hosting public domain resources.

I’m also a regular user of Creative Commons and have worked with educators who use the CC licensing for materials they create for their classrooms. In going this route, teachers allow other educators to use their lesson plans and materials in their own classrooms, while not allowing anyone to appropriate the work for commercial purposes. Unlike the cumbersome and potentially expensive governmental copyright procedures, CC offers creators a free and simple way to control their work and to determine how it’s shared and used.

There are many good sites that can help educators demystify the copyright world for themselves and their students. Here are a few:

The wealth of freely available digitized creative works provides educators and students with a growing array of opportunities. But knowing where to find what we want, and then understanding how to use it so we respect its creators, is of equal import. As for future Public Domain Days, there’s lots more good stuff on the way.

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.