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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

What Happens To George Orwell's Work Now It's Out Of Copyright?

(Picture Credit - Washington Post)

There are no doubts that George Orwell is one of history's all-time great authors. Some may say William Wordsworth or one of the Brontë sisters but none have shaped the literary landscape quite so much as George Orwell. 2021 sees his works run out of copyright, but that doesn't mean they'll enter the public domain straight away.

If you look hard enough, you'll be able to find copies of both Animal Farm and 1984 as PDF files from some websites, but there's always questions of legitimacy and staying on the right side of the law. With those books now being out of copyright, it would be easy to assume that the Internet will now be awash with all the different versions and prints of some of his best known works. However, with Orwell's writing being some of the most popular and pertinent of the modern age, there's still a high demand, and to just allow them to be freely available would mean that publishers miss out on a huge money maker.

Now they're in the public domain, it becomes a massive scramble for publishers to repackage his seminal works and it's likely that publishers have already been hard at work to form new collections. For instance, the Oxford University Press are producing 'World Classic' editions of classic literature such as Tolstoy's War and Peace or the third edition of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Their newest listings however concern Orwell's releases, be it Animal Farm or Down and Out in Paris and London. The latter title also forms part of a monster from Flame Tree Publishing entitled Visions Of Dystopia that not only brings together extracts from Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, but also features writings from other authors such as Jack London and Yevgeny Zamyatin who both explore totalitarianism and the police state in period texts.

The world's obsession with Orwell's isn't just limited to a publishing house's fascination with rereleasing already known works in a different way than before, but extends into other spheres that you might not expect. Last December saw the release of a text-based choice-driven narrative game based around Animal Farm that sticks true to the novel providing you make similar decisions. Of course, as the developers state, there is the option to go off-piste and as per the Steam description, "depending on how you play, you may encounter situations very close to those in the book, or others influenced by events Orwell never lived to see." This reinvention of a classic novel portrays the endless appeal of Orwell's works; their reinvention in forms other than the original novel proves that there is an audience outside of just readers.

You could argue that this is no surprise given the constant reapplication of his views and writings to modern society. He was, first and foremost, a journalist and became a novelist as his career developed, but within those novels, there's a constant sense of critique and questioning that only the most eminent journalists have the ability to do. His impact on language and literature has been so profound that the adjective Orwellian has become a vital part of the lexicon. However, Orwellian has come to describe anything that could be considered remotely dystopian. It reflects the view of Orwell the novelist first, not the journalist.

Whilst most are aware of his work on the fictional side, the gritty non-fiction makes for some of his best work. I was first introduced to Orwell not through any novels but an essay based around marriage and love he wrote in the thirties when I was fifteen, but the piece of his that resonates most with me is Politics and The English Language. It might be one of his more obscure pieces, but his intention to portray vague writing as a tool of political manipulation still rings true today. It can be said that political rhetoric relies on such empty words and in the modern age, quick slogans, that appear to say a lot, but once they're pondered for even the shortest time, amount to nothing in reality.

From a linguistic perspective, it is his dismantling of the prescriptive argument but in turn the creation of his own rules that make the essay such a thought-provoking read. In particular, the quote "In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them." should be put to those who see the English Language GCSE's 'Creative Writing' task as 'stimulating'. What such a mentality and task does is teach teenagers that writing based on a picture or from a statement is a tick-box exercise. Writing in any guise isn't a tick-box exercise. No-one I know writes an email, or a letter, or a text message, or an article and then checks to see if contains all the features that the acronyms they learnt at school told them it should. Nor if someone writes a short story do they check to see if they have included copious amounts of similes, metaphors or personification. Assessments in art-based subjects such as English should not be based on what the mark scheme deems acceptable, but what is considered fit for purpose in the context of what has been written. Orwell was, much like during the writing of his novels, way ahead of his time.

There is no doubt that George Orwell will continue to be one of the most referenced and quoted authors in modern society and that the expiration of the copyright attached to his works will only increase the demand for them. If you haven't read any of Orwell's pieces, go and read them; be it an essay, article or full novel, their respective subject matter and execution is absolutely incredible. There is an important thing to note however: don't just think of Orwell as a novelist; his journalist practice is what makes the books such a good read, both now, and in the future.


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