Public Domain Day 2021

Tarzan & the Golden Lion, illustrated in 1922 by James Allen St. John

Another year has turned, and another batch of old material has emerged from copyright.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Born in Chicago in 1875, Burroughs is principally famous for two stories about people removed from their environment of birth: Tarzan, the British noble firstborn adopted by an ape, and John Carter, a Confederate veteran who finds himself on Mars.

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw was forthright in many controversial campaigns, a presence among the highest echelons of society and an active political force well into his tenth decade, but I can’t help but think that nowadays a lot of his works – especially Pygmalion and Arms and the Man – are now remembered more as the basis for puns and parodies than for their actual contents.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald actually died eighty years ago, but the intricacies of US copyright law mean that The Great Gatsby only now enters the public domain. Long used as an educational staple, a landmark of social commentary and the ill-judged inspiration for lavish house parties, this novel is now available for anybody’s interpretation, though maybe Flash is best avoided.

Eric Arthur Blair, AKA George Orwell

The giant of twentieth century political literature, Orwell first became known to me through the school English curriculum circa 2011. In that spring we were tasked to write – and then perform to the class – a speech on what we would consign to Room 101. I was ranked first in class for my condemnation of the caravan. While that was obviously derived more from the television series than from Orwell’s own writing, it still taught us about him if indirectly. In the early summer we analysed his essay Shooting the Elephant and I recall in the end of year examination (not sure if it was the real one or the mock) one of the passages included was an extract from chapter 3 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Winston coughs a lot while performing the physical jerks. At that autumn’s prize-giving event I was named best in year for both sciences and humanities and my reward included two book tokens. I distinctly remember that Nineteen Eighty-Four was one the works I most wanted to buy with them, the other being The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins*. It is unclear exactly when I got around to buying and reading them (probably Whitsun 2012 is the late limit), but digging through old email correspondence with a classmate shows that in November I discovered and watched Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation. This was a source of unintentional mirth at the time as we noticed two of our history teachers interacting in what we read to be a mildly amorous manner while bearing a vague physical resemblance to John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton. I also recall a different classmate ardently recommending that I read Animal Farm, which I did at the same time, though I do not recall how I came about my copy of that book nor where it currently resides.

At some point during these years I also found in my school’s library a copy of Homage to Catalonia, the tale of Orwell’s experience fighting for the POUM in the Spanish Civil War. The book was about forty years old** and I could barely turn a page without it breaking off in my hand. The librarian intervened several times with spine tape but eventually decided that the book was beyond rescue and decided to withdraw it from display. She placed it on a special shelf near her desk with a red ticket inside reserving it for me, on the understanding that it would stay there until I had finished it, after which she would throw it out (or give it to me permanently, it seems) and buy a new one.***

Orwell has particular relevance to this entry because period in which I read most of his works was the time of SOPA, PIPA, CISPA and ACTA in the United States, alongside the superinjunction controversies at home. It was also the time when I became engaged in various online “reviewtainment” makers (SF Debris, Red Letter Media, Trilbee et al), as well as various fandom communities, whose existence such bills would have threatened. One consequence I started looking up author death dates to commence mental countdowns to when various bits of media would enter the public domain, and Orwell’s works were especially prominent in this – his writing being so much centred around ideas of the control of information and knowledge.

The question now arises of what can be done to take advantage of his works’ new status, and one possible answer has occurred to me: Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a very sizeable book-within-a-book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, ascribed Brotherhood-leader Emmanuel Goldstein. Winston Smith reads the first chapter “Ignorance is Strength” and the third chapter “War is Peace”, but the Thought Police arrest him before he – and therefore we – can get a good look at the second.

I don’t really do competitions on this blog, since I have neither a large enough circulation nor any good prizes to give away, but if there are any teachers reading this I recommend an essay challenge for your students, which technically is also a fanfiction opportunity – tell me why freedom is slavery.

Further Reading:

2021 in Public Domain

*Somewhat ironically, that year’s prize also included a quatercentenary edition of the King James Bible.

**The latest reprint listed on its now-defunct copyright page was 1971, and the only checkout date stamped on the card affixed to the first page was 10th October 2011. Presumably I was the one taking it home on that date, for clearly nobody else had touched the book in a long time, but I may have been reading it within the library before then.

***The next year I took home a 1969 print of J. P. Nettl’s The Soviet Achievement, which I held together with some of my father’s aluminium duct tape. In May and June 2014 she held a clearing sale for a lot more books. I spent 25p on Communist Political Systems: An Introduction (Printed in 1988) by Stephen White and 10p on Structure and Change in Modern Britain (Printed in 1981) by Trevor Noble. The latter two showed no damage except their spines fading in the sunlight, but perhaps no love either as their checkout cards were blank. White’s book I found engaging enough to finish but Noble’s was so dull that I stopped with my bookmark still lodged at page 53 of 416, having found that just reading the blurb aloud would see my classmates drifting off to sleep.

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