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New Life for Old Classics, as Their Copyrights Run Out

Works by Proust, Cather, Lawrence, and Frost are among those entering the public domain on Jan. 1.
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This coming year marks the first time in two decades that a large body of copyrighted works will lose their protected status — a shift that will have profound consequences for publishers and literary estates, which stand to lose both money and creative control.
 
But it will also be a boon for readers, who will have more editions to choose from, and for writers and other artists who can create new works based on classic stories without getting hit with an intellectual property lawsuit.
 
“Books are going to be available in a much wider variety now, and they’re going to be cheaper,” said Imke Reimers, an assistant professor of economics at Northeastern University who has studied the impact of copyright. “Consumers and readers are definitely going to benefit from this.”The sudden deluge of available works traces back to legislation Congress passed in 1998, which extended copyright protections by 20 years. The law reset the copyright term for works published from 1923 to 1977 — lengthening it from 75 years to 95 years after publication — essentially freezing their protected status. (The law is often referred to by skeptics as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” since it has kept “Steamboat Willie,” the first Disney film featuring Mickey, under copyright until 2024.)

Now that the term extension has run out, the spigot has been turned back on. Each January will bring a fresh crop of novels, plays, music and movies into the public domain. Over the next few years, the impact will be particularly dramatic, in part because the 1920s were such a fertile and experimental period for Western literature, with the rise of masters like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.

“Eventually, these books belong to the people,” said James L. W. West III, a Fitzgerald scholar. “We can have new attempts to edit and reinterpret all of these iconic texts.”

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.”
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