BYU students compete to make new art out of old — and now copyright-free — works

(AP file photos) From left, mystery writer Agatha Christie, novelist H.G. Wells and composer George Gershwin. Copyrights on some of their works lapsed early this year, putting certain books and music in the public domain and available to artists for repurposing.

Imagine it: A new movie adaptation of Herman Melville’s sea epic “Billy Budd,” or E.M. Forster’s India-set drama “A Passage to India,” or Lowell Thomas’s accounts of meeting T.E. Lawrence — aka Lawrence of Arabia. Maybe set it to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” or Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Here’s the beauty part, for the producers: They don’t have to pay a dime to license the stories or use the music.

Those creative works, and many others first published in 1924, all entered the public domain at the first of the year — and groups of Brigham Young University students are getting a chance to adapt these newly copyright-free works in a 48-hour filmmaking contest.

“I love being challenged to make something out of other things,” said Harrison Koford, a junior at BYU studying media arts, who is writing and directing an entry in this year’s contest. “If I can repurpose something without having to pay for it, that’s better than having to try and make something out of nothing.”

The entries in BYU’s second annual Public Domain Film and Music Festival will screen Wednesday, Feb. 5, at 7 p.m., at the Varsity Theater on the BYU campus. Admission is free.

The contest covers both film and music based on works whose copyright protection has lapsed. Musicians have a week to compose something based on public-domain music, and film crews of five or fewer have 48 hours to make a short film based on a public-domain book.

The contest is run by BYU’s Copyright Licensing Office, which secures licenses for copyrighted educational materials to be used by the university’s instructors, said Kenny Baldwin, the office’s director of operations.

The contest is a way to educate students about how copyright works, Baldwin said, and “inspire the community to embrace their own right as creators of creative content.”

Baldwin’s office started the contest last year, just after a change in copyright law took effect and released more work into the public domain for the first time in two decades. In 1998, an extension of U.S. copyright limits was enacted, moving the length of copyright to 96 years after publication.

(The extension is sometimes called the Sonny Bono Act, named for the late pop star and California congressman who sponsored it. It’s also called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, by cynics who noted a chief beneficiary was The Walt Disney Company, because it kept the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, 1927’s “Steamboat Willie,” under protection. Unless Congress changes the law again, “Steamboat Willie” joins the public domain on Jan. 1, 2023.)

Works published in 1924 lost copyright protection on Jan. 1, and are now considered in the public domain. They join a list of classics that includes Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

For the contest, Baldwin made a list of 10 titles from literature and 10 pieces of music first published in 1924, which contestants can adapt for their entries. The list includes works by authors H.G. Wells and Agatha Christie, and composers George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jelly Roll Morton.

Koford and his sister, Kennedy Koford Williams, a BYU senior studying technology and engineering education, competed in the first contest and are building a crew to make a film for this year’s competition. Koford writes and directs; Koford Williams serves as producer and handles the camera.

Koford said he plans to adapt H.G. Wells’ short story “The Dream,” in which a man from a Utopian future dreams of life as an Englishman in the early 20th century. But he may incorporate threads of some other titles on the list.

“Going in and looking at what’s available in the public domain, you can find all these gems,” Koford Williams. “Being aware of what’s in the public domain expands on what you can create and what you can do.”


The second annual Public Domain Film and Music Festival, highlighting repurposed uses of works that have outlived copyright protection.

Where • Varsity Theatre, Brigham Young University campus, Provo.

When • Wednesday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m.

Admission • Free.