Once books become part of the public domain, anyone can sell a digital, audio or print edition on Amazon. Fans can publish and sell their own sequels and spinoffs, or release irreverent monster mash-ups like the 2009 best-seller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
Theater and film producers can adapt the works into movies, plays and musicals without having to secure rights. Rival publishing houses can issue new print editions, and scholars can publish new annotated versions and interpretations. Free digital copies will circulate online. At the start of the new year, Google Books, which has more than 30 million works scanned in its vast online digital library, will release full digital editions of works published in 1923, among them Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan and the Golden Lion” and Edith Wharton’s “A Son at the Front.”
It’s difficult to say exactly how many works will enter the public domain this January, because some authors and publishers allowed their copyright to lapse, and some foreign-language books first published overseas in 1923 may remain under copyright for now, like Felix Salten’s “Bambi.” More than 130,000 copyright registrations were filed in 1923 for various creative works, but most of those were not renewed, according to John Mark Ockerbloom, a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Some publishers and the writers’ heirs fear that losing copyright protections will lead to inferior editions with typos and other errors, and to derivative works that damage the integrity of iconic stories.
“Publishers are right to be concerned about a proliferation of unreliable editions, some of them probably not very good,” said John Kulka, the editorial director of Library of America, a nonprofit organization that publishes American literary classics.
Still, many scholars and legal experts argue that American copyright law, which is mind-numbingly 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. “It’s worse than the tax code,” said Rebecca Tushnet, an intellectual property expert at Harvard Law School. “The copyright term is way too long now.”
Some studies show that extending copyright can actually have a negative impact on the sales and availability of books. A few years ago, Paul J. Heald, a law professor at the University of Illinois, used software that randomly sampled books available on Amazon, and discovered that there were more new editions of books published in the 1910s than from titles published in the 2000s. Publishers often stop printing books that aren’t selling, but still retain the copyright, so no one else can release new editions. Once the books enter the public domain, a wider variety of new editions become available again, filling in a hole in the public and cultural record.