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A new chapter opens for classics

Many set to lose copyright status

Nearly a century ago, publisher Alfred A. Knopf released a slim book of spiritual fables by an obscure Lebanese-American poet and painter named Kahlil Gibran.

Knopf had modest expectations, and printed around 1,500 copies. Much to his surprise, “The Prophet” took off. It became a huge hit, and went on to sell more than 9 million copies in North America alone.

Until now, the publishing house that still bears Knopf’s name has held the North American copyright on the title. But that will change Tuesday, when “The Prophet” enters the public domain, along with works by thousands of other artists and writers, including Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, Rudyard Kipling, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens.

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This coming year marks the first time in two decades that a large body of copyrighted works will lose their protected status — a shift that will have profound consequences for publishers and literary estates, which stand to lose both money and creative control.

But it will also be a boon for readers, who will have more editions to choose from, and for writers and other artists who can create new works based on classic stories without getting hit with intellectual property lawsuits.

“Books are going to be available in a much wider variety now, and they’re going to be cheaper,” said Imke Reimers, an assistant professor of economics at Northeastern University who has studied the impact of copyright. “Consumers and readers are definitely going to benefit from this.”

The sudden deluge of available works traces back to legislation Congress passed in 1998, which extended copyright protections by 20 years. The law reset the copyright term for works published from 1923 to 1977 — lengthening it from 75 years to 95 years after publication — essentially freezing their protected status. (The law is often referred to by skeptics as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, since it has kept “Steamboat Willie,” the first Disney film featuring Mickey, under copyright until 2024.)

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Now that the term extension has run out, the spigot has been turned back on. Each January will bring a fresh crop of novels, plays, music, and movies into the public domain. Over the next few years, the impact will be particularly great, in part because the 1920s were such a fertile period for Western literature, with the rise of masters such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.

Once books become part of the public domain, anyone can sell a digital, audio, or print edition on Amazon. Fans can publish and sell their own sequels and spinoffs, or release irreverent monster mash-ups such as the 2009 bestseller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

Theater and film producers can adapt the works into movies, plays, and musicals without having to secure rights. Rival publishing houses can issue new print editions, and scholars can publish annotated versions and interpretations. Free digital copies will circulate online.

Some publishers and the writers’ heirs fear that losing copyright protections will lead to inferior editions with typos and other errors and to derivative works that damage the integrity of iconic stories.

“Publishers are right to be concerned about a proliferation of unreliable editions, some of them probably not very good,” said John Kulka, a director at Library of America, a nonprofit organization that publishes American literary classics.

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