Happy Public Domain, 1923!

The District of Columbia is mainly laid out in a grid pattern, with streets running north and south, and east and west. Avenues, named for the states, cross these at odd angles, so that throughout the city (and especially downtown) the intersections carve out small triangular plots. They’re too small to build on, but if you’re lucky, you might get a parklet.

Near my apartment is one such parklet, but it’s a sad sight. It’s dedicated to Sonny Bono (1935-1998), singer, style icon and member of Congress. There was a piece of legislation named in his honor after his death that has been a more enduring legacy than the parklet, and far uglier.

Bono memorial plaque

Bare parklet from the south
Images available under license, CC-BY (Scott Wells)

Copyright law is complex and confusing, so I won’t try to unlock that here. (Neither do I recommend confusing that which is publicly available with the public domain, as some church people fall into.) But extending copyright so long benefits the few who own those rare evergreen properties, and effectively locks down useful but mostly forgotten works. Works about Universalism, say.

Under the law, works published before 1978 went from having a 75-year copyright term to 95 years. The yearly pipeline of new works entering the public domain was cut off for twenty years. And the old term was pretty darn long. For this reason, it’s easier to get books about Universalists (and much besides) from 1840 than 1940. (The issue of “orphan works” is problem, but past the purpose of this article.)

Twenty years! I remember thinking “That’ll be forever from now.”

Forever as it happens, is next week.

On January 1, 2019, new works will enter the public domain, namely works copyrighted in 1923. And each year, we’ll get another year’s works.

As a Universalist, I’m looking forward to these entering the public domain. I hope Google or some other scanning project has them in the wings to share on New Year’s Day.

If you want to read more about the works entering the public domain, Smithsonian magazine as a nice treatment.

2 Replies to “Happy Public Domain, 1923!”

  1. Ooooo! I have a copy of Universalist Church of Ohio. I was given a copy when I served the Universalist Church of Eldorado. It is a very nice book. It has tons of information on the distribution of congregations, ministers, etc. Even with some maps showing distribution by different years (chronological snapshots if you will). Based on this book, Wells Behee concluded that many of the congregations were not congregations as we presently think about them. But were instead preaching stations. No property. Likely no bank account. No elected officers. Just a few people willing to worship in the schoolhouse, library, or grange hall when a traveling preacher came through town.

    All this caused Wells to challenge what he saw as the mythical past where there was supposedly a Universalist church in every Ohio county. Sorta true, but also sorta false. Such are many of our myths.

    When I read the book I also found it interesting to note how many women were serving in ministry. But many were only at small churches or in assistant pastor positions. Many were educated as at Buchtel Universalist College (now a component of University of Akron), and worked bi-vocationaly as teachers. A different model of ministry than we have now, that isn’t tied to a master’s level theological degree. But also a system of ministry rife with what we would now recognize as sexism.

    Yes a very valuable book for insights into Universalism in Ohio.

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