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August 2019

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Public Domain Day 2019

January 1 is Public Domain Day in the US. By that I mean, according to current US copyright law, old material will begin entering the public domain again yearly. On the first day of 2019, all works published in 1923 will enter the public domain. This quirk in the law is due to provisions in the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 and unless Congress starts screwing with copyright terms again (and they probably will) works produced in 1924 will enter the public domain in 2020, those produced in 1925 in 2021, and so on. You can read lots more about it here, though in truth I've known about it since 1998. Funny how fast twenty years go when you're having fun!

Now, I've just finished a recent original ebook called Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood. It's the first of a series of YA boys' books taking place in the Yankee Republic, which is a sort of alternate history America where boys are still taught traditional values and aren't kept prisoners in their homes until they're fifteen or sixteen. In Wood's book, a group of young teen boys (12-14ish) built a pirate radio station to serve their little town in the mountains. There's some truth here: Turn young teen boys loose, and they can do amazing things. I've been building radio transmitters since I was 12. I built a junkbox telescope at 14 that helped win Carol's heart three years later when I showed her Saturn's rings in her driveway. Several of my friends were doing a lot of the same. Today, you get in trouble for letting your kids walk to school or to the park, or (in some places) ordering chemical glassware for chemistry experiments.

But I digress. The point I'm making is that "boys' books" were very popular in the 1920s. A lot of them (along with an enormous amount of other material) will now be going into the public domain yearly, unless the law changes. When I read Pirates of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, the first thing that came to mind was a book on my shelves called Boy Scout Electricians or The Hidden Dynamo that I got at an estate sale for 35c. It was published in 1913, and has been in the public domain for some years now. It's a potboiler, a little breathless, and awkwardly written, like most boys' books of that era, and in truth until the era came to an end in the 1950s. Being in the public domain means that we can do any damned thing we want with them. So...why not edit them to improve the writing and make them better books? Far too much current YA fiction cooks down to dystopian bummers. Some people enjoy those. Many don't. I certainly wouldn't give that stuff to my kids, if I had any.

This is not a new thought of mine, and I suspect others have thought of it too. A lot of pulp-era material fell into the public domain years ago for lack of copyright renewal. On reading some of the pulp scans I've downloaded (remember my series on the pulps?) I reflected that with a few days' work I could make them much better and more readable. It would be a very interesting experiment. Note that I don't mean merely republishing them as-is (this is done all the time) but improving the writing and possibly (where it makes sense) updating them a little.

A lot of the stories from the pulp era were written quickly, paid their authors very little, and can be painful to read. But they're also full of action and ideas, and cardboard characters can be fleshed out with a little skill. Some that I've read evoke a place or a period very well. They could become engaging entertainment with a little work. I'm sniffing around Project Gutenberg's SF bookshelves for an experimental subject, and it'll be interesting to discover what pulp-ish fantastic fiction goes into the public domain this coming Tuesday. Suggestions welcome.

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