The year 1923 has served as an invisible barrier for decades. For the first two decades of the 21st century—the very time period that archives, databases, and collections were really starting to come online—the commons was cut off at that year; works published before 1923 were safely in the public domain, while works published in 1923 or later were risky and required individual research.
On January 1, 2019, the public domain resumed its march forward after a 20-year hiatus. Our cultural commons now includes a handful of very famous works: one of the most iconic images of the silent film era; the first book of poetry by e e cummings; a legendary novelty song that topped the charts for weeks. These well-known works got lots of well-deserved attention in January 2019 as they rose into the public domain, their copyright restrictions falling away after so many years.
But for every creation that has had the popular and commercial appeal to sustain it through nearly a century of copyright restrictions, there are hundreds (or thousands!) of interesting and unusual pieces that risk being forgotten.
If we don't engage with the public domain, we can't truly feel its value. And if we don't feel its value, we will lose it—to industry groups that benefit from lopsided policy, or to companies that would privatize our shared culture, or simply to history and irrelevance.
This zine project is a humble counterforce, picking out a few compelling and thought-provoking subjects from a massive archive. An entire year of culture is intimidating, but I hope a few hand-selected highlights gives an easy and human-scale way to feel its weight.