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How the public domain offers new life to these poetry classics

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

For years, those iconic lines of verse in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” have been printed on many a refrigerator magnet and intoned in countless high school English classes. But this month, for the first time since its publication almost 100 years ago, Frost’s poem shook off its copyright restriction like a covering of snow at the end of winter, and entered the public domain — and it was in good company.

2019 marked the first mass copyright expiration in more than two decades, freeing up works from Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sukumar Ray, Jean Toomer, E.E. Cummings and Kahlil Gibran for gung ho academic, creative and commercial use.

A reissue of Gibran’s work “The Prophet,” published last week, includes a foreword by poet and Instagram star Rupi Kaur, connecting the classic book to a new generation of creators.

Literary works in the public domain have inspired countless homages, spinoffs and reimaginings. Broadway hit musical “Wicked” was based on Frank L. Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which entered the public domain in 1956. New York Times bestseller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” mixed 2009’s undead craze with Jane Austen’s 18th-century romantic comedy. Tony-award winner Lin Manuel Miranda used several public domain works in “Hamilton,” avoiding copyright infringement for his contemporary take on one of the Founding Fathers.

For more on the various ways the public domain serves today’s poets, writers and other literary fans, the PBS NewsHour interviewed Adam Green, editor-in-chief of The Public Domain Review, Robert Casper, head of the Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center, and Karyn A. Temple, director of the library’s U.S. Copyright Office.

These conversations have been combined and edited for length. A list of works entering the public domain in 2019 is available here.

What’s the value of having works in the public domain? Why not keep everything under copyright?

ADAM GREEN: When applied sensibly, copyright allows artists and writers to make a living off their creations and encourages further artistic production. But there comes a point when it makes sense to end copyright and let works enter the public domain. From publishing innovative new editions to turning a 19th-century novel into a computer game, creators have always built on works that have come before them, and the public domain makes this flow of ideas across generations and centuries almost frictionless.

KARYN A. TEMPLE: As the Supreme Court has recognized, copyright is “the engine of free expression,” and the lifecycle of copyright, including its exceptions, limited term, and the public domain, is all part of the critically important framework created in our Constitution.

Why include poetry in the public domain?

ROBERT CASPER: Poetry’s brevity and dynamism, its ability to deeply and powerfully contend with universal issues, and the way in which it connects its readers across time and space to a singular voice makes it an ideal art form to share in our social media age.

ADAM GREEN: It would be a real shame if poetry were excluded! My favourite public domain poem is the “Duino Elegies” by Rainer Maria Rilke, though it is only the original German version which is in the public domain.

How can poetry in the public domain help us learn more about authors whose other works are still copyrighted?

ADAM GREEN: When works enter the public domain, they get shared more widely and it tends to become cheaper to acquire physical versions. So we might, for example, see more new editions of William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” collection (which enters the U.S. public domain this year). He’ll get increased visibility through this and it might pull in readers to engage with his other works, which have yet to enter the public domain.

What are some barriers to adding works to the public domain?

ADAM GREEN: The biggest barrier is intense corporate lobbying for extending copyright terms. In the U.S., the most famous example of this was the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998, also known as the Sonny Bono Act or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. This last derisory nickname points to the heart of the matter. Faced with the expiration of copyrights on Mickey Mouse and other famous characters, Disney (along with a bevy of other media powerhouses such as Time Warner and Universal) lobbied hard for an extension, and they won.

Does something written nearly 100 years ago change when re-released now? Does its message stay the same? Does it have the same impact?

ADAM GREEN: Works have meaning due to their audience giving it that meaning, and if the audience is of a different time then the meaning will be different, they’ll take different things from it, different things will resonate. Take, for example, the Bible: Few Christians will nowadays be obeying the command to “not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19).

Also, of course, works from the past might have a particular impact today precisely because they are from the past. They provide a window into a world which, while maybe humdrum at the time, for us is totally strange and fascinating because of this strangeness.

ROBERT CASPER: There’s always a dynamic between a given literary work and the room it allows for interpretation. This is true from one person to another, and true throughout time. I think the most important literary works, from yesterday to today, are “news that stays news”—they continue to tell us something about ourselves that we need to know.

Below, read one of the poems recently added to the public domain.


Four Sonnets

BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

I

LOVE, though for this you riddle me with darts,
And drag me at your chariot till I die,–
Oh, heavy prince! O, panderer of hearts!–
Yet hear me tell how in their throats they lie
Who shout you mighty: thick about my hair,
Day in, day out, your ominous arrows purr,
Who still am free, unto no querulous care
A fool, and in no temple worshiper!
I, that have bared me to your quiver’s fire,
Lifted my face into its puny rain,
Do wreathe you Impotent to Evoke Desire
As you are Powerless to Elicit Pain!
(Now will the god, for blasphemy so brave,
Punish me, surely, with the shaft I crave!)

II

I THINK I should have loved you presently,
And given in earnest words I flung in jest;
And lifted honest eyes for you to see,
And caught your hand against my cheek and breast;
And all my pretty follies flung aside
That won you to me, and beneath your gaze,
Naked of reticence and shorn of pride,
Spread like a chart my little wicked ways.
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk your memory’s halls, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of a girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.

III

OH, THINK not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you–think not but I would!–
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.

IV

I SHALL forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,–
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

For “Four Sonnets” and several other works published in the early twenties, Millay won the the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923. This is the first year these award-winning works have been eligible to enter the public domain.

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