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Public Domain Day 2019

January 1 is Public Domain Day in the US. By that I mean, according to current US copyright law, old material will begin entering the public domain again yearly. On the first day of 2019, all works published in 1923 will enter the public domain. This quirk in the law is due to provisions in the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 and unless Congress starts screwing with copyright terms again (and they probably will) works produced in 1924 will enter the public domain in 2020, those produced in 1925 in 2021, and so on. You can read lots more about it here, though in truth I’ve known about it since 1998. Funny how fast twenty years go when you’re having fun!

Now, I’ve just finished a recent original ebook called Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood. It’s the first of a series of YA boys’ books taking place in the Yankee Republic, which is a sort of alternate history America where boys are still taught traditional values and aren’t kept prisoners in their homes until they’re fifteen or sixteen. In Wood’s book, a group of young teen boys (12-14ish) built a pirate radio station to serve their little town in the mountains. There’s some truth here: Turn young teen boys loose, and they can do amazing things. I’ve been building radio transmitters since I was 12. I built a junkbox telescope at 14 that helped win Carol’s heart three years later when I showed her Saturn’s rings in her driveway. Several of my friends were doing a lot of the same. Today, you get in trouble for letting your kids walk to school or to the park, or (in some places) ordering chemical glassware for chemistry experiments.

But I digress. The point I’m making is that “boys’ books” were very popular in the 1920s. A lot of them (along with an enormous amount of other material) will now be going into the public domain yearly, unless the law changes. When I read Pirates of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, the first thing that came to mind was a book on my shelves called Boy Scout Electricians or The Hidden Dynamo that I got at an estate sale for 35c. It was published in 1913, and has been in the public domain for some years now. It’s a potboiler, a little breathless, and awkwardly written, like most boys’ books of that era, and in truth until the era came to an end in the 1950s. Being in the public domain means that we can do any damned thing we want with them. So…why not edit them to improve the writing and make them better books? Far too much current YA fiction cooks down to dystopian bummers. Some people enjoy those. Many don’t. I certainly wouldn’t give that stuff to my kids, if I had any.

This is not a new thought of mine, and I suspect others have thought of it too. A lot of pulp-era material fell into the public domain years ago for lack of copyright renewal. On reading some of the pulp scans I’ve downloaded (remember my series on the pulps?) I reflected that with a few days’ work I could make them much better and more readable. It would be a very interesting experiment. Note that I don’t mean merely republishing them as-is (this is done all the time) but improving the writing and possibly (where it makes sense) updating them a little.

A lot of the stories from the pulp era were written quickly, paid their authors very little, and can be painful to read. But they’re also full of action and ideas, and cardboard characters can be fleshed out with a little skill. Some that I’ve read evoke a place or a period very well. They could become engaging entertainment with a little work. I’m sniffing around Project Gutenberg’s SF bookshelves for an experimental subject, and it’ll be interesting to discover what pulp-ish fantastic fiction goes into the public domain this coming Tuesday. Suggestions welcome.

12 Comments

  1. Orvan Taurus says:

    The scary thing is that even with NO modification, they would readily outclass so much stuff (of) today. With even minor adjustment… you’d have the (not at all)”literary” equivalent of the atomic bomb – push a button, turn a dial, the work is done for miles and miles (‘Atomic Cocktail’ — Slim Gaillard)

    1. True enough, and a deeper reading over the past few days suggests that there is a very focused market for fiction reflecting traditional values: homeschoolers. The Catholic-themed readers that we used in grade school are becoming scarce because they’re much in demand in the homeschooling community. (I grabbed a few 10-12 years ago for nostalgia’s sake, and I’m glad I did.)

      Project Gutenberg has copies of some of the Radios Boys and Radio Girls series. Yes, there were radio adventure stories (radio being the bleeding edge tech of the 1920a) for girls. I’m going to download a few, read them, and give it some thought. I know a lot about radio, especially vintage radio, though books published in 1922 would be a little more vintage than I’ve messed with. The series looks interesting, and about 2/3 of it is already in the public domain, with the rest to follow in a few more years. See:

      http://seriesbooks.info/radiob.html

      It would be interesting to see if such YA stories could be updated so that today’s YA audience wouldn’t be constantly tripping over anachronisms. Stay tuned. This could be interesting. (And I might need beta readers, hint-hint.)

      1. Michael Black says:

        But how do you mark these books compared to the originals? The originals shouldn’t be erased, but once they no longer have copyright protection, you end up with multiple versions.

        You can completely change the context or meaning. So yes, you can erase racism, but you could also change a book to support racism or slavery. Holocaust deniers can modify Anne Frank’s diary.

        My great, great, great grandfather wrote about three books towards the end of his life, the 1850s. They get referenced a lot, I assume because they cover history not well documented. They can be racist, despite my great, great, great grandmother. Should they be “fixed”? I think it’s one of Alvin M Josephy’s books that mentions him, how he didn’t really think much of native people. Change the books and that and other references no longer make sense. Based on a mention in another book (which seems only there because my ancestor had some level of fame with the books) I wonder if the racism is what he was, or because the book buying public at the time expected it.

        I once posted about Wadley loops, and how receivers like the HRO-500 did not use them, despite similarity. Much later I found the post in a site about Wadley loops, but someone had “fixed” it so I was saying the reverse. Copyright protects my words.

        My take on copyright is that by the time you’ve come up with a good story, you have good enough characters. You don’t need to write in someone else’s universe. The minute you value someone else’s story, that’s the moment you acknowledge their skill, and their copyright.

        Michael

        1. Original copies of famous works (like Anne Frank) are everywhere. Sleazeballs trying to ruin the work wouldn’t fool anybody.

          What I’m talking about are the cheap assembly line novels, most of them YA, which almost no one has ever heard of today. Originals would still exist, but it wouldn’t matter: The stories would be cleaned up and re-introduced to a modern audience as though they were new. I doubt anybody but academics would care about differences in such rewrites, if even academics.

          None of this is an attack on copyright. It’s primarily a suggestion that many salvageable but forgotten books from the 1920s are coming out of copyright, and useful things could be done with them. I’m a fan of pulp entertainment. The main problem with the pulps was bad writing. This is fixable, assuming legal issues are out of the way. Once such works are in the public domain, all legal issues are out of the way. It’s an idea worth exploring.

        2. Mapleton Reader says:

          In my opinion, the issue of version control only becomes a problem if versions are not marked well (sloppiness) or at all (which suggests some deceit) neither of which is what I gathered was Jeff’s intent. I believe a reworking of an existing item is not uncommon (Hollywood revises movies e.g. “A Star is Born”; Plays are updated (Kiss Me Kate from Shakespeare) and even Shakespeare recast existing writings into his plays). It may be that book revisions that Jeff is talking about are less common (other than some versions of the Bible). I find that I prefer certain versions more than others (so far no Dr. Suess film version of the “Grinch” is better than the original imo). I think it may be worthwhile to see if there is a niche for a new version of out of print/out of copyright works that otherwise may be forgotten (by all but academics and old fans) as long as it is done overtly and the proper credit is given.

  2. Man of the Atom says:

    Thanks for the reminder about Public Domain Day, and that we have to watch the congresscritters for future attempts to freeze the ‘Domain in the interests of Silicon Valley, Disney, and other less-than-ethical types.

  3. Lee Hart says:

    Great idea, Jeff. Books such as the Tom Swift stories, Carl and Jerry, and Mad Scientist’s Club by Brinley were a major influence in my deformative years. They encouraged me to get up and *do* something! Get into ham radio, rockets, computers, and technology in general.

    For 20 years, I worked in a group called BEST (Bridging Engineering Science and Technology). We went into 4th-6th grade elementary school classes and mentored them to imagine, invent, build and test their own “contraptions”. I can assure you that the spirit of invention is still alive in our youth!

    Unfortunately, it is largely dead in today’s parents. What often passes for STEM is locked-down tech, with the adults in complete control of the direction.

    I think kids could *love* a series of “Harry Potter” like books, but with science and technology as the focus instead of magic. Use tech that they can imagine actually doing, using the rich resources literally all around them.

    Try to imagine what *we* would be able to build if we were kids today!

    1. I’ve thought about this here and there, and in fact an old (and now deceased) friend suggested a modern-day Carl & Jerry 20-odd years ago. (Not George Ewing, though George would be on board like a shot if I created a series like this.) I actually took notes on a Carl & Jerry as sixtysomethings series using modern tech like Wi-Fi, but it wouldn’t work for a number of reasons.

      In the days since I wrote this entry, I’ve skimmed a few early 1920s YA novels, and the anachronism problem would be hard to address. Such books could be improved greatly in terms of writing, but they’d still be caught in the 1920s, absent a total rewrite that would make them essentially new books. I’m not sure what could be done about this, but will continue to think on it.

    2. Carrington Dixon says:

      Jeff already knows this, but one word of caution to the eager and unwary. While, for example, the early “Tom Swift” stories are public domain, the Tom Swift name is likely still protected by trade mark.

      Writing a new Tom Swift adventure would certainly be a trade mark violation. Massively revising one of the PD novel might bring more legal hassle than it would be worth.

      Rule of thumb, if you have heard of the character, proceed with caution. No Tom Swift; no Frank Reade. Motor Matt, maybe.

      1. You raise an interesting issue, for which there’s no clean-cut answer. (The devil, as always, is down in the fine print.) There’s some significant case law indicating that copyright law trumps trademark law when a work enters the public domain. The key decision is Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp (2003) for which there’s a Wikipedia page:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dastar_Corp._v._Twentieth_Century_Fox_Film_Corp.

        To quote: “The Court reasoned that although the Lanham Act forbids a reverse passing off, the rule regarding the misuse of trademarks is trumped by the fact that once a copyrighted work (or even a patented invention) passes into the public domain, anyone in the public may do anything with the work, with or without attribution to the author.”

        More: “The decision strengthened the rights of those who wish to make use of works that have passed into the public domain. If the lawsuit had been decided the other way, claims based on trademark or even based on moral rights such as attribution of authorship, could have been used to make it impractical for anyone to use works in the public domain as intended by Article I of the Constitution.”

        Now, Simon & Schuster registered a trademark for “Tom Swift” in 2006. I don’t know how courts would apply the claim for a mark that was originally used in 1910 and not registered for *96* years. I’m not aware that they’re still publishing anything using the “Tom Swift” name, which would further weaken their case. My guess is that releasing an edited version of a PD Tom Swift Sr novel would not be an issue. Writing brand new stories is slightly slipperier territory.

        Author Scott Dickerson, whom I’ve corresponded with, is actually writing new Tom Swift, Jr stories, and has been for some years, without any difficulty that I’ve heard of:

        http://www.tomswiftlives.com/

        Scott even pulls in Rick Brant (read the cover copy):

        http://www.tomswiftlives.com/34AQUADISKcoversite.jpg

        This even though all Tom Swift Jr. novels are still in copyright, as far as I can tell. (I’ve spot-checked several against the copyright renewal database. Only the pre-1963 titles would be in question.) I see no trademark registration for “Frank Reade,” a name that now goes back almost 150 years.

        Not being a lawyer, I don’t know for sure, and I’m far from sure that even copyright lawyers would know for sure. Your guess is sound, I think: The less well-known a PD work is, the less likely there are to be problems. Resurrecting Frank Reade would make some sense given today’s steampunk culture, and as far as I know (I haven’t looked) it’s already been done.

        When time allows, I’m going to try something along these lines. I’d forgotten about Frank Reade, and reworking one of his 19th century adventures for modern steampunk tastes would be great fun and probably safe.

        As with a lot of things, I won’t know until I try.

  4. jim fuerstenberg says:

    I remember reading the original Tom Swift books at the house of a family friend….I think those were published pre 1920….and they were a lot of fun to read.

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