The public domain has been frozen in time for 20 years, and we’re reaching the 20-year thaw,” says Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain. The release is unprecedented, and its impact on culture and creativity could be huge. We have never seen such a mass entry into the public domain in the digital age. The last one—in 1998, when 1922 slipped its copyright bond—predated Google. “We have shortchanged a generation,” said Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. “The 20th century is largely missing from the internet.”
For academics fearful of quoting from copyrighted texts, teachers who may be violating the law with every photocopy, and modern-day artists in search of inspiration, the event is a cause for celebration. For those who dread seeing Frost’s immortal ode to winter used in an ad for snow tires, “Public Domain Day,” as it is sometimes known, will be less joyful. Despite that, even fierce advocates for copyright agree that, after 95 years, it is time to release these works. “There comes a point when a creative work belongs to history as much as to its author and her heirs,” said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild.