In 2019, for the first time in 20 years, U.S. copyright law allowed formerly copyrighted works to join the public domain. Works in the public domain are no longer under copyright, and anyone can republish or use those works in whatever way they want. The public domain is the default home of all creative endeavors because culture isn’t owned by any single person or corporation—it’s shared.
This year, the public domain opened up to include works from 1926 and a whopping 400,000 sound recordings. Of course, the real fun is that the third Hercule Poirot novel by Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and the original books of Winnie-the-Pooh and Bambi are now free for anyone to use.
In particular, the popular images of Winnie-the-Pooh and Bambi have been dominated by one rightsholder’s vision for a long time: Disney. And while Disney’s versions of those stories remain under copyright, their exclusive hold on two cornerstones of childhood has come to an end. This is a good thing—it lets those stories be reinterpreted and repurposed by people with different takes. We can all decide whether the Disney versions are the actual best ones or were simply the only ones.
Public domain works can be used for such lofty goals. Or they can simply be used for fun, allowing anyone to participate in a worldwide sport of joy. With so many more uses suddenly available to so many more people, we get a flood of works and get to choose which ones we love most. And, of course, we can try our hand at joining in.
Last year, the Great Gatsby was at the center of a flurry of internet jokes when it entered the public domain. Archive of Our Own, the award-winning fanfiction archive, suddenly found itself home to very lightly altered versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous work. Some replaced the characters in the original with those from other works, putting them in dialog with each other. One absolute internet genius replaced every use of “Gatsby” with “Gritty,” replacing a memetic capitalist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a recent film adaptation with a memetic anti-capitalist puppet hockey mascot.
When people compete to top each other for the most creative, weird, or just funny use of a public domain work, we all win.