Whose Words These Are

I have an article in the January 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine about the potential cultural impact of the expiration of copyright on nearly everything published in the U.S. in 1923. With few exceptions, everything that had proper initial notice and filed for copyright renewal from that year in 1951 (renewal was once required) will enter the public domain on January 1. It’s exciting, as it starts a 54-year cycle of annual releases of each year from 95 years prior into the public domain.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a prominent bit of literature from 1923. Robert Frost’s poems have had zealous copyright enforcement. It even featured in a landmark Supreme Court case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, in which the Supreme Court decided that the “limited terms” of exclusive ownership defined in the Constitution meant any duration that Congress picked.

In honor of “Stopping by Woods” upcoming entry into the public domain, I wrote this bit of doggerel. (A fancy typeset version appears below.)

STOPPING BY WORDS ON A NEW YEAR’S EVENING

Whose words these are it’s clear to see,
He wrote them back in ’twenty-three.
His reps have never stopped the fight
To limit use by copyright.

James Madison would think it queer
That rights this long could stay so dear,
But courts have let extensions be
Despite the case of Eldred v.

The house of publication shakes
Off questions that renewal breaks
In ’fifty-one, a form not sent—
No one tried to show dissent.*

The words are lovely, free and clear,
With oceans more that will appear.
And years to go before release,
And years to go before release.

*In an example of the kind of complexities that surround copyright, the poem first appeared in The New Republic, and may have not had proper renewal in 1951. It’s possible it’s been properly in the public domain for 67 years.