Let's Reminisce: New life for literary classics
By Jerry Lincecum
Jan 16, 2019
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As a former college professor of English and American literature, I spent many of my working hours trying to convince students that reading great literary works was important and could enrich their lives.  At the time, thanks to copyright protections, most of those books were available only in rather expensive editions.  But that is now changing.

For the first time in 20 years, a large pool of literary works will lose their copyrighted status and enter the public domain. That means these books will likely be cheaper, and artists can create new works based on classic stories without fear of an intellectual property lawsuit.

Some publishers are worried about the change, and stand to lose money. But for readers, experts say, the additions will be a huge benefit. Thousands of artists and writers — including Kahlil Gibran, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, and Thomas Mann will have their work enter the public domain.

This year marks the first time in two decades that a large number of copyrighted works will lose their protected status.  This change will have major consequences for literary estates as well as publishers, because they will lose money and creative control.  But readers will have more editions to choose from, including new works based on classic stories that had been protected.

But let’s examine more specific examples.  The 1920s was an especially rich period for writers, and we will now have unrestricted access to books from that era by Robert Frost, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.  For example, we may see an annotated edition of “The Sound and the Fury,” one of Faulkner’s novels that I enjoyed teaching because students needed help in discovering the rich meaning it contained.  I might now choose to publish my own interpretation of this novel, adding to Faulkner’s text some notes and questions I have developed.

One major source of new editions will be Google Books, which has
more than 30 million works scanned in its vast online digital library.  Many of these books are less “literary” but nevertheless important, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan and the Golden Lion” and Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet.”

A lot of free digital copies will also circulate online, accessible on Kindle and similar devices.  There’s nothing to stop fans of an author or book from publishing (and selling) their own sequels and spinoffs--even crazy monster mash-ups like the 2009 best-seller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” that is a rewrite of Jane Austen’s classic novel.

Theater and film producers can now adapt classics into movies, plays and musicals without having to secure and pay for rights. This could be a boon to community theater groups. 

Why has this sudden deluge of available works come about?  It can be traced back to legislation Congress passed in 1998, which extended copyright protections by 20 years. Now that the term extension has run out, these classics enter the public domain.

Each January will bring a fresh crop of novels, plays, music and movies into the public domain.  Many scholars and legal experts argue that American copyright law, which is complex, has skewed toward enriching companies and the heirs of writers and artists at the expense of the public. When the first Copyright Act was passed in the United States in 1790, the maximum term was 28 years. Over the decades, lawmakers repeatedly prolonged the terms, which now stretch to over a century for many works.  But that trend has been reversed, and readers are the winners.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired English professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  A new class begins at Grayson College on Feb. 6 as part of the TEAMS program for senior citizens: