On New Year’s Eve, when the clock was rolling over to midnight to start 2019, it brought another long awaited new start with it; the first time in 20 years that a new crop of American publications entered the public domain. To the rest of the world this 20 year gap may seem strange; after all, new works enter the public domain every year. But in America, this annual liberation from copyright law was put on hold and we all have Disney to thank for it.
Back in 1886 most of the world agreed to the Berne Convention which dictated copyright terms be the author's life plus a certain number of years: in Canada it's life +50, in the UK it's life +70. But America had already set up its own system; works created before the ratification of the Constitution in 1776 remained in the public domain and anything created after qualified for copyright protection, as long as the rights owners continued to renew it. Copyright law evolved over the centuries until 1978 when the law changed to author's life +50 years, or 75 years past the year of creation for anonymous or corporate-owned works. In 1998, Disney realized that their iconic debut of Mickey Mouse (the short cartoon Steamboat Willie, which came out in 1928) was set to become public domain in 2004. They drummed up support from other creative corporations and successfully lobbied to have the rules changed. The resulting act became known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (or, more derisively, as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act) and changed the public domain rules to life +70 or 95 years past publication. This created the 20 year public domain drought we have experienced until now.
So with the dawn of this new year comes a new bundle of works that can be made available to us via Project, Google Books, Internet Archive, literally anyone who wants to make then available.