Jan. 1 marked the first time in 20 years that new works entered the public domain in the United States. Books, songs and movies from 1923 are now part of our cultural heritage free from copyright restrictions. The hiatus was due to the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended the time for works published between 1923 and 1977. The public domain of Drexel University-related works is larger than it at first appears, though, including many works published after 1923.
Unlike today, older laws included many reasons that works could become public if the authors did not take action to keep their copyright — like including notices with “copyright” or the famous © mark, registering their works with the U.S. Copyright Office and renewing the copyright after 28 years. Peter B. Hirtle at Cornell University has compiled these requirements in an extensive chart.
Consider The Triangle. The first issue on Feb. 1, 1926 announced it as the “official newspaper published by the students of Drexel Institute,” but included no copyright notice, which was required until 1978 (until 1989 if it was never registered). It was not a big concern for a staff only charging five cents an issue. After examining a sample of archived issues, it seems that it’s not until Feb. 13, 1970 — in the midst of a crisis over Drexel’s dorm expansions into the surrounding community — that “copyright” is added to the masthead.
Except for a few syndicated columns and advertisements with their own notices, The Triangle before 1970 is free to use. It is already distributed online; the practical benefit is that its masses of articles, photographs and comics can be copied and adapted by historians, nostalgic alumni and artists without worrying about licensing.
Another valuable work in the public domain is “Drexel Institute of Technology, 1891-1941: A Memorial History” by Edward D. McDonald and Edward M. Hinton — the first history book about Drexel. Published in 1942, it properly bore a notice and was registered. But like most books, its copyright was never renewed, which was required for works published before 1964. This resource, available at the Hagerty Library, could be scanned and published online.
The same is true of The Drexerd, the comic magazine from which The Triangle was spun off. It ran from 1921 to 1941; I have been unable to verify whether any issues had notices, but no renewals were ever filed, putting the full run of its elegantly illustrated off-color jokes in the public domain. Most issues are held by the Drexel Archives.
Not to be confused with this is The Lexerd, our yearbook, which I have seen with inconsistent notices but have found no renewals for. It is likely in the public domain at least through 1963, and some years through 1988 will be in the public domain if the specific issue didn’t include a notice.
Probably some issues of The Gargoyle and its successor, Maya Literary Magazine, are also free, along with many one-off publications. For unpublished works like private papers, the prospects are less promising, as their copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author.
Copyright is not the only question, as the Archives has not even digitized much of its collection of rare books about which no doubt existed. It’s slow-going (and therefore pricey) work. Students for whom ambition can’t wait, though, can go to the Archives and take their own pictures. Who knows what they will create?