#FREEMICKEY: The Expiration of the Copyright Term Extension Act

12:49 January 29, 2019
By: Camille Barnett

Thousands of works published in 1923, ranging from books, music, plays, and films, entered the public domain this month for the first time in 95 years. This overwhelming outpour comes 20 years after the Copyright Term Extension Act, also called the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, since it was named after the late singer/entertainer-turned-congressman, Sonny Bono (of the iconic duo Sonny and Cher), the California representative who pushed for the extension’s passing. 

“The public domain has been frozen in time for 20 years, and we’re reaching the 20-year thaw,” said Jennifer Jenkins, the director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Public Domain, in a statement to the Smithsonian (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/first-time-20-years-copyrighted-works-enter-public-domain-180971016/).

With the 1976 Copyright Act in place, works published before 1978 had a maximum 28-year time period of protection with a 47-year renewal period, tallying 75 years of safety from the public domain. On October 27, 1998, President Bill Clinton, in a very timely manner, signed the act’s extension into law; this was the 11th extension in 40 years, and it added an additional 20 years of protection to copyrighted works. The year 1998 fell exactly 75 years after 1923. So, instead of works becoming part of the public domain at the beginning of 1999, as scheduled, they simply stayed protected through 2018, making the beginning of 2019 a mark of new-found freedom within the public domain.

Being that many authors and artists responsible for these works are long gone, what these extensions truly protected were the constant streams of income pooling into the pockets of corporate copyright owners. In fact, in 1998, Disney was one of the most adamant voices rallying for extended protection. The probable fuel behind their fire? Steamboat Willie: Micky Mouse’s first on-screen appearance in 1928, which had a copyright expiration date of 2004. Though the 1998 extension still protects our beloved cartoon mouse until 2024, here are some works that became public at the beginning of this year that will keep us busy while we wait for the release of our beloved Mickey: 


Bambi by Felix Salten, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

The World Crisis by Winston S. Churchill

Tulips and Chimneys by E.E. Cummings

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

New Hampshire by Robert Frost 


The Pilgrim, directed by Charlie Chaplin

Safety Last!, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, featuring Harold Lloyd

The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Our Hospitality, directed by Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone

The Covered Wagon, directed by James Cruze

Scaramouche, directed by Rex Ingram


“Charleston,” Cecil Mack & James P. Johnson

“King Porter Stomp,” Jelly Roll Morton

“Yes! We Have No Bananas,” Frank Silver & Irving Cohn

Other compositions from:

  • Louis Armstrong
  • Irving Berlin
  • George Gershwin

Hooray for copyright freedom! 

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