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January 1, 2020 marks a new year but it also marks the date in which works from 1924 will enter the U.S. public domain. Once this happens, this large collection of music, books, and films will be free to use for all.
Extended copyright term
These works were initially supposed to go public in 2000. But Congress extended their copyright term by 20 years. Now, the time has finally come for these materials to be copyright-free.
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What will this change? Well, plenty. The Internet Archive and HathiTrust will add these works to their online libraries.
In the meantime, Google Books will now offer the full text of these works instead of only snippet views. Perhaps who will benefit most is the community.
The films can now be screened in community theaters while orchestras can publicly perform the music. If you would like to know what material will now be made available you can visit the Catalogue of Copyright.
An important law
Copyright laws ensure that copyrights last for a limited time. Why is this so important? As the Supreme Court explains: "[Copyright] is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of special reward, and to allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited period of exclusive control has expired." Sony v. Universal (1984).
To paraphrase, it is important because it allows access to our cultural heritage. Most works from 1924, for instance, are not in circulation anymore. But by making them copyright-free, we give new artists the opportunity to use them again and perhaps even improve on them.
What is sad, however, is that some of these works already don't exist anymore. 1924 was a long time ago and a lot of the work from that time may have disintegrated. Still, for the work that still exists its a wonderful time for it to be revived.