Our markets, our democracy, our science, our traditions of free speech, and our art all depend more heavily on a Public Domain of freely available material than they do on the informational material that is covered by property rights. The Public Domain is not some gummy residue left behind when all the good stuff has been covered by property law. The Public Domain is the place we quarry the building blocks of our culture. It is, in fact, the majority of our culture.
—James Boyle, The Public Domain, p.40f, 2008, quoted on the Public Domain Manifesto.
Happy Public Domain Day! Public Domain Day occurs on New Years' Day, signifying the expiration of copyright on unpublished material whose authors who died 70 years ago.
[We are actually in a period of playing "catch-up": In 1998 Congress extended copyright for an additional 20 years, resulting in 95 years of protection for published works. Their actions were unprecedented, placing some public domain works back into copyright (despite the Constitution's guarantee that once entered in the public domain, works can not go back into copyright). So since 1998, 1922 has been the last year that published work went into the public domain. The "catch-up" year will be 2019, when published material from 1923 finally goes into the public domain.]
While we wait for 2019 to freely use material published in 1923, we are fortunate that the copyright period for unpublished work is only 70 years after the death of the creator. That means that for creators who died in 1942, their unpublished work is now in the public domain as of January 1, 2013.
For those people interested in music, two people who died in 1942 are Emma Calvé and Leo Ascher.
Emma Calvé as CarmenEmma Calvé (1858-1942) was a French soprano, particularly known for her portrayal of the title character in Bizet's opera Carmen, as well as other roles in the French repertoire. She made a number of recordings (between 1902 and 1920), many of which are available in reissues, and some of which are available on YouTube.
The Music Division has several signed calling cards and a few letters by Calvé.
Calvé letter, page 1Calvé letter, page 4Even though this letter was written on May 24, 1903 (nearly 110 years ago), until January 1, 2013, the rights to this and other letters written by Calvé rested with her heirs or estate. Now, anyone can transcribe and use its contents without having to seek permission.
Leo Ascher (1880-1942)Leo Ascher (1880-1942) was a composer of operettas. He lived in Vienna, but after Kristallnacht, he fled to the United States, where he lived out his remaining years. Even though the bulk of his papers reside at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, the Music Division has a number of manuscript full scores of some of his operettas. (Unfortunately, Ascher's manuscripts — like many tens of thousands of scores the Music Division acquired prior to 1971 — do not appear in the online catalog.)
A page from the manuscript score of Leo Ascher's Bruder LeichtsinnThis page, from the manuscript full score to Ascher's operetta Bruder Leichtsinn, can now be legally reproduced without permission. In fact, the entire manuscript can be reproduced and published without permission.
We also have a series of sketch books where Ascher sketched musical ideas.
From one of Leo Ascher's sketchbooksOn the page above he has sketched a tune with the word "Böhemisch," i.e. gypsy-like.
From one of Leo Ascher's sketchbooksEven though Ascher has vividly crossed out this idea, it's still visible beneath the blue pencil. Compositional sketches and sketch books such as the one above are of incalculable use to musicologists and those studying the genesis of musical composition. Therefore, in a very real sense, the creation of new work is based in part on access and use of existing work. Knowing that this work is freed from legal entanglements makes it more usable for those to want to study it, perform it, or reuse it in other ways.
A few other performing artists who died in 1942 were John Barrymore, George M. Cohan, Arthur Pryor, Erwin Schulhoff, and Alexander Zemlinsky.
So even though copyright ties up published work until 2019, we can take consolation in knowing that unpublished work is still freed on an annual basis.
Happy Public Domain Day!