Illustration of people opening door on side of large copyright symbol (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

A Charlie Chaplin silent film, Winston Churchill’s account of World War I, and “The Charleston” — a song that started a 1920s dance craze — are among the thousands of songs and stories published in 1923 that are now released from copyright for all to enjoy.

Starting this past January, everyone from teachers and theater groups to internet companies could post certain old books online or adapt decades-old plays into new dramas in contemporary settings.

Free use of art and literature after a set period of time is a core tenet of U.S. copyright law, which seeks to balance the right of creators to seek compensation for their work with the preservation of cultural artifacts for future generations to use and enjoy.

Based in the U.S. Constitution, copyright is a form of intellectual property law that protects original works of authorship including poems, novels, songs, architecture and even computer software. Other forms of intellectual property law include patents and trademarks that protect inventions, and the symbols or slogans used in advertising.

Copyright does not cover facts, ideas or methods of operation, but rather writers’ expressions of those concepts.

The two main aspects of copyright — a period of exclusive rights, followed by subsequent freedom of use — both provide incentives to creators in different ways. While a copyright is in effect, authors can reap payment for their work.

The Authors Guild, a union representing novelists, poets, historians and journalists, says, “Effective copyright protection is the linchpin of professional authorship; it enables authors to make a living writing.”

But releasing literature from copyright increases the availability of old songs and stories and allows their use in new creations. Prominent literary critic Northrop Frye has said, “Poetry can only be made out of other poems, novels out of other novels.”

This year’s release of books, songs, and films from 1923 has given a sudden boost to the process of creating new expression from old literature, drama and music, according to the Duke University School of Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Public and private libraries have already posted thousands of books online, and community theaters are planning screenings of forgotten films.

“We can’t predict what uses people are going to make of the work we make available,” Mike Furlough, executive director of the HathiTrust, an education and research partnership that runs a massive digital library, told Smithsonian Magazine. “And that’s what makes it so exciting.”

This article was written by freelance writer David Reynolds.