Thanks to a copyright extension introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and endorsed by Rep. Mary Bono (R-CA) in 1998 encouraged by big media companies including Disney, there was a 20 year delay in adding anything to the public domain. What had been a 75-year single term for works for hire became an innovation-stunting 95 years.
When the Stratemeyer Syndicate books were produced, there were a set of fair rules.
- Works for hire received a first term of protection of 28 years.
- If a work was still viable, the owner could pay a fee and fill out a form to get 28 more years of protection for a total of 56 years.
Most books are not commercially viable after 28 years. Some won’t sell from a major publisher after just a couple years. Series books tend to last longer because the early volumes are reprinted as new volumes are issued. Plus some readers try to read the books in order even though this is rarely a benefit on Syndicate series.
The 75-year single term was added in the Copyright Act of 1976 and went into force on January 1, 1978. Older works had their first term of 28 years and 47 years more if renewed since 28+47=75.
For a long time the books that were clearly in the public domain were U.S. works from 1922 or earlier. However, there are other classes which are public domain such as works produced by the U.S. government.
Another important category are works between 1923 and 1963 where the copyright was not renewed after its 28-year first term. Most of the Syndicate copyrights were renewed. There are a few exceptions. A database which shows book copyrights which were renewed is hosted by Stanford based on work by a Google engineer.
For the last couple of years, works from 1923 and 1924 have entered the public domain after their 95-year term. Each January 1 a new year’s copyrights are added. For 2021 this includes the works from 1925. For Stratemeyer Syndicate series this means some 28 volumes because it was one of their active years of producing series books.
Most of the 1925 publications are continuations of existing series. For example, Stratemeyer’s own Rover Boys series had its penultimate volume, The Rover Boys on Sunset Trail published on February 16, 1925. He began this 30-volume series in 1899 with three volumes. By 1908 it was published by Grosset & Dunlap. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams renewed the copyright for this volume on November 7, 1952. The final volume was published in 1926.
The first volume in the Bobbsey Twins series was personally written by Edward Stratemeyer for publication in 1904. The next two books were ghostwritten from his outlines by Lilian C. Garis in 1907. After this, there was a delay of several years before any new volumes were added in 1913 by Howard R. Garis. One of these was The Bobbsey Twins Keeping House which was copyrighted on February 25, 1925. The Syndicate renewed this on February 6, 1953 as “Laura Lee Hope,” the pen name for the series. The Syndicate learned later from the Copyright Office that this renewal under the pen name was invalid.
Once it was established and until 1933, the Tom Swift series was the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s best-selling series. When the publisher’s co-founder, George Terry Dunlap, wrote his memoir, The Fleeting Years (1934), the cumulative sales of all Tom Swift volumes was approximately 6.5 million copies. This was a very good sale for the period even though it would be eclipsed by modern phenoms like Harry Potter. The 1925 volume was Tom Swift and His Chest of Secrets, a story which describes a vault that Tom would use for his blueprints, notes, and patent models. It is not quite the “chest” shown on the cover as described in the story. The copyright was registered on March 2, 1925 and it was renewed on February 6, 1953 by “Victor Appleton.”
The Great Marvel series of nine Jules Verne-inspired science fiction stories published under the “Roy Rockwood” name was begun in 1906. Early volumes were written by Howard R. Garis. The seventh volume, The City Beyond the Clouds, was written by John W. Duffield from Stratemeyer’s outline. It was published by Cupples & Leon on June 6, 1925. The copyright was renewed by Harriet S. Adams on April 2, 1953.
Other volumes published in 1925 from continuing series are:
- #12 Baseball Joe, Champion of the World by “Lester Chadwick.”
- #8 Betty Gordon at Rainbow Ranch by “Alice B. Emerson.”
- #15 Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue on the Rolling Ocean by “Laura Lee Hope.”
- #10 The Curlytops Touring Around by Howard R. Garis.
- #6 Honey Bunch: Her First Days in Camp by “Helen Louise Thorndyke.”
- #15 The Outdoor Girls at Foaming Falls by “Laura Lee Hope.”
- #8 The Radio Boys with the Flood Fighters by “Allen Chapman.”
- #21 Ruth Fielding at Golden Pass by “Alice B. Emerson.”
- #11 The Six Little Bunkers at Indian John’s by “Laura Lee Hope.”
- #8 Sunny Boy on the Ocean by “Ramy D. Alison.”
- #4 The Riddle Club at Sunrise Beach by “Alice Dale Hardy.”
Three new series were introduced in 1925. All were published by Grosset & Dunlap.
The Flyaways series by “Alice Dale Hardy” was written by Howard R. Garis. It features a boy and a girl who meets famous nursery tale characters. All three books in the series were published by Grosset & Dunlap on May 27, 1925. The same pen name was used for the Riddle Club series. The copyrights were renewed under the author’s name on March 11, 1953. [These images were culled from several websites.]
The Don Sturdy series by “Victor Appleton” was written by John W. Duffield. The title character travels with two uncles to exotic locales to hunt and search for treasure. There is a little bit of Indiana Jones in these stories. The books were billed as “By the Author of Tom Swift” on the books and jackets. The first five books were published on May 15, 1925 and renewed on February 6, 1953 under the author’s name.
The Blythe Girls series by “Laura Lee Hope” was written by Elizabeth M. Duffield Ward. This is a highly-regarded series among readers. It features three sisters who earn their own livings in New York City. Three volumes (1-3) were copyrighted on May 15, 1925. These were renewed on February 6, 1953. The other two (4-5) were published on May 27, 1925. These were renewed on March 11, 1953 under the author’s name. [These images were adapted from ones found on Jennifer White’s gallery for the series.]
Of course, just because titles are in the public domain does not mean that copies of all are available to download from the various online book sites. Several of them rely on copies in libraries and many libraries took a dim view of series books. But they may be added when someone cares to scan and share them.
The public domain is a valuable asset to the citizens of the United States, and by extension, the rest of the world. Public domain books may be reprinted and reused in many ways without paying license fees to any copyright holder. Of course if there are other rights, such as trademark, these may be a separate issue.