In 1998, Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act, which—like its name implies—extended the copyright of works published between 1922 and 1978 by an additional 20 years, from 75 years to 95 years. On Tuesday, January 1, that extension period runs out, and works from Marcel Proust, Agatha Christie, Edith Wharton, Robert Frost, and more will enter the public domain. The New York Times notes that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is not in this batch—but the novel will have its turn to be reprinted by anyone and potentially turned into fanfiction come 2021.
Copyright laws, in theory, are good; they protect original creative works from being copied without permission from the creator. But it seems to me that consumers stand to benefit way more when works enter the public domain.:
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 new annotated versions and interpretations. Free digital copies will circulate online.
What does that mean for The Great Gatsby, and how will I, a consumer who hated The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, benefit from this change? My relationship to the celebrated—but in my opinion, severely overrated—text may have just gotten a lifeline; when its copyright expires, there will be nothing stopping anyone from penning and publishing Great Gatsby fanfic, much to its publisher’s chagrin:
In anticipation of a flood of new editions of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” when the copyright expires in 2021, the Fitzgerald estate and his publisher, Scribner, released a new edition of the novel in April, hoping to position it as the definitive version of the text. The novel has sold around 30 million copies worldwide, and continues to sell more than 500,000 copies a year in the United States alone. But in two years, anyone with a laptop will be able to publish an e-book of the text, or sell fan fiction based on the story.
But I, for one, welcome this development! Given how much I did not enjoy Gatsby, fan fiction can really only improve on the original material. The idea of a literary universe in which Gatsby is less of a dingus really fills me with joy. Maybe someone will write a version in which the narrator explains from the onset that West Egg and East Eggs have nothing, in fact, to do with eggs. Maybe there will be a Gatsby fanfic that is also an even-handed critique of capitalism! The possibilities are endless—once we hit 2021—and now I have a bright spot to look forward to in the next two years.