“Yes! We Have No Bananas”: A Tale of Public Domain

I’m sure most of you know what the term public domain means: works including books, plays, films, stories, and music, among other things, which are beyond the limits of their copyright, meaning that they can be freely adapted by others for different projects without any payment to an individual or organization for the rights to the material. Things in the public domain are those that have been around for centuries, such as the works of Plato, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

Different countries have different copyright laws, but the most universal rule is that a work becomes public domain on January 1 of the seventieth year after the creator’s death. Due to some adjustments in American copyright law, there hasn’t been a January 1 “Public Domain Day” for a while, but in 2019, that rule expired for works published in 1923, which include The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and the ever popular standard “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

Image result for yes we have no bananas
Credit: wikipedia.org

Despite this hullabaloo of excitement over all this new material, 2019 also marks 70 years since 1949. So, I thought that I’d look up some of the lesser-known folks who kicked the bucket in 1949, to see whose work you can freely adapt. So you don’t have to.

Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949)

Born in Russia, Ivanov was a poet of the Russian Symbolist movement who traveled the world, and earned degrees from schools in Germany and Italy. He is known for his theatre theory, in which he compared Dionysus to Christ, arguing that arts were a “utopia” which could bring religious belief back to a skeptical society, although he eventually turned to mysticism himself. He wrote several books of sonnets, but his two plays Tantalus (1905) and Prometheus (1919) look the most tantalizing.

Elin Pelin (1877-1949)

Born Dimitar Ivanov Stoyanov in Bulgaria, he is known as a “narrator of Bulgarian country life.” His pen name came from pelin, meaning “wormwood,” an homage to his rustic roots. In addition to writing, he was also a librarian and a museum curator. His genre of choice was children’s literature, but his novel The Gerak Family  (1911) is about a Bulgarian country family dealing with the rapidly modernizing world. I feel like it could become something fish-out-of-water-y, like a family-based reality show type of deal. Not quite Breaking Amish, but more like a fun, sitcom type thing, like The Middle with a pinch more reality. Sorta.

Elisheva Bikhovski (1888-1949)

Bikhovski was a Russian-born Christian writer who strongly identified with the Jewish culture. Known in her writing by the mononym “Elisheva,” she eventually immigrated to Israel, where she spent the rest of her life translating texts between English, Hebrew, and Russian, and teaching at a progressive school. She wrote her Futurist poetry and short stories in Hebrew. Despite achieving moderate success in the literary world and embarking on tours of Europe, she died in poverty, working as a librarian and a laundress. Her 1929 novel Alleys takes place in 1920s Moscow’s bohemian scene, where men and women, Jewish and Christian, mingle and contemplate a new, post-revolution Russia. A modern-day adaptation might look like New Girl, although I’m not sure how nicely “quirky and adorkable” and “post-Czarist Russia” coincide.

Of note: the three authors I just mentioned wrote in Russian, Bulgarian, and Hebrew, respectively, so unless you speak any of those languages, any English translation is probably under some kind of copyright, although you might be able to wheedle your way around that.

The next three writers on the list, however, wrote in English, so bombs away.

Rex Beach (1877-1949)

This guy’s life is a best-seller in itself. Beach was born in Michigan but raised in Florida where his father grew fruit trees. After graduating from law school in Chicago, he got a case of gold fever and headed for Alaska in 1900. Unsuccessful in panning for gold, he turned to writing. (But first, in 1904, he scored a silver medal for the USA as a part of the water polo team at the St. Louis Olympics.) Beach’s books mostly centered are life in the wilds of Alaska. His most popular novel, 1906’s The Spoilers, about gold miners and corrupt government officials in Nome, was adapted for the screen five times, so maybe that’s not the prime candidate for redoing, but some other interesting titles of his include Too Fat to Fight,  The Goose Woman, and Oh, Shoot. The end of his life was no less dramatic, as he shot himself in his home in Sebring, Florida, at age 72, and when the house was being remodeled in 2005, the bullet that killed him was still embedded into the wall. Final fun fact: he and his wife are buried on the campus of Rollins College, as he was the first president of the college’s alumni association.