Classic Works Enter the Public Domain

January 7, 2019

Various authors

On January 1, 2019, thousands of classic books—many by notable authors including Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens—entered the public domain after a 1998 law extending copyright protections by twenty years ran out.

Now that the law, which reset the copyright term for books published between 1923 and 1977, has expired, anyone can publish and sell a print, digital, or audio edition of these works, and anyone can publish new work based on these titles without infringing on intellectual property laws. Publishers can print new editions, digital editions can be available online, and theater and film producers can pursue adaptations without securing rights.

All of this means that many classic books will be more widely accessible and cheaper. But publishers, scholars, and estates are “concerned about a proliferation of unreliable editions,” noted John Kulka, the editorial director of Library of America, in the New York Times. But John Siciliano, the executive editor of Penguin Classics, added, “Having multiple editions of these works and renewed publication energy behind them enlarges the market rather than cannibalizing it.”

Either way, the coming years will bring even more works of fiction, poetry, and drama—including books by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf—into the public domain. Unless, of course, Congress renews or creates new legislation.


The images for this piece, compiled and published by The New York Times, of Kahlil Gibran, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Jean Toomer, and Thomas Mann are credited to SSPL/Getty Images, Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, Penguin, and the Fred Stein Archive, via Getty Images.

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