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Hundreds of artworks enter the public domain in 2019

Silent films and other great works of arts published in the early 20th century had their copyrights and patents expire on Jan. 1, 2019. This marks the first year onwards to release registered intellectual property from the 20th century permanently into the public domain.

This wave of material has not been seen since around the year 2000 when some of the first long-term patents expired.

Why are so many works being released this year?

In the 20th century, some of your favorite works from the US were retroactively protected for additional years to comply with international standards set in 1886. Instead of profiting from intellectual property rights only for a certain number of years under US law, after 1976, artists could profit for the rest of their lives plus 70 years.

If works were published between 1923 and 1963, it is highly likely that their patents were not renewed within the 28-year grace period as granted in the 1976 legislation and complicated by 1998 copyright revision law. The 1963 copyright status as of 2019 is therefore definitively expired.

What complicates an intellectual property claim?

Other than expiration dates, an intellectual property claim can end prematurely and enter the public domain early. This could also be due to any of the following:

  • The publication company closed or went bankrupt
  • Lack of sales
  • Death of the author and their heirs

It would be up to the artist’s estate legal team to protect the property and pursue those who would infringe on their rights. Under larger companies, lawyers can extend property rights long after the artist dies.

You may have heard of the “Happy Birthday Song” lawsuit against Warner Bros. who famously kept a stranglehold on the rights to the song for plays, films and TV shows. In 2016, after a long and costly court battle against director Jennifer Nelson (on behalf of artists everywhere), Warner Bros. paid more than $14 million to settle the dispute and drop their intellectual property claim to the song.

Intellectual property claims can be complicated towards the end of their life. Copyright law has shifted, as has cultural attitudes towards the rights of artists and their ability to prosper long-term from their work. It may seem that an artist loses out when the work becomes so popular that a judge declares that it is in public domain. In fact, the value of their work shifts, and the notoriety and cultural significance of their work becomes an invaluable part of their legacy.

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