January 1, 2023 is Public Domain Day: Works from 1927 are open to all!

By Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain

January 1, 2023 is Public Domain Day: Works from 1927 are open to all!

Montage of 1927 Works

On January 1, 2023, copyrighted works from 1927 will enter the US public domain. 1  They will be free for all to copy, share, and build upon. These include Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and the final Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the German science-fiction film Metropolis and Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller, compositions by Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, and a novelty song about ice cream. Please note that this site is only about US law; the copyright terms in other countries are different.

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Here are just a few of the works that will be in the US public domain in 2023. 2  They were supposed to go into the public domain in 2003, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years. Now the wait is over. (To find more material from 1927, you can visit the Catalogue of Copyright Entries.)

Books

Amerika (in the original German)
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
  • Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
  • Countee Cullen, Copper Sun
  • A. A. Milne, Now We Are Six, illustrations by E. H. Shepard
  • Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • Ernest Hemingway, Men Without Women (collection of short stories)
  • William Faulkner, Mosquitoes
  • Agatha Christie, The Big Four
  • Edith Wharton, Twilight Sleep
  • Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York (the original 1927 publication)
  • Franklin W. Dixon (pseudonym), The Tower Treasure (the first Hardy Boys book)
  • Hermann Hesse, Der Steppenwolf (in the original German)
  • Franz Kafka, Amerika (in the original German)
  • Marcel Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (the final installment of In Search of Lost Time, in the original French)

These are just a handful of the thousands of books entering the public domain in 2023. There is a lot to celebrate: a modernist masterpiece, poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, children’s verses featuring Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters, and early works from Hemingway and Faulkner. Copyright will also expire over Arthur Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes stories—you can read more about copyright over characters and the Doyle estate’s attempts to artificially extend rights over Holmes and Dr. Watson here.

Image representing Der Steppenwolf at the Magic Theater

Movies Entering the Public Domain

Sunrise (directed by F.W. Murnau)
  • Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang)
  • The Jazz Singer (the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue; directed by Alan Crosland)
  • Wings (winner of the first Academy Award for outstanding picture; directed by William A. Wellman)
  • Sunrise (directed by F.W. Murnau)
  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller)
  • The King of Kings (directed by Cecil B. DeMille)
  • London After Midnight (now a lost film; directed by Tod Browning)
  • The Way of All Flesh (now a lost film; directed by Victor Fleming)
  • 7th Heaven (inspired the ending of the 2016 film La La Land; directed by Frank Borzage)
  • The Kid Brother (starring Harold Lloyd; directed by Ted Wilde)
  • The Battle of the Century (starring the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy; directed by Clyde Bruckman)
  • Upstream (directed by John Ford)

1927 marked the beginning of the end of the silent film era, with the release of the first full-length feature with synchronized dialogue and sound. Here are the first words spoken in a feature film from The Jazz Singer“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.” Read about the transition from the silent film to the “talkie” era, and the quest to preserve some of the remarkable silent films on this list, here. Please note that while the original footage from these films will be in the public domain, newly added material such as musical accompaniment might still be copyrighted. If a film has been restored or reconstructed, only original and creative additions are eligible for copyright; if a restoration faithfully mimics the preexisting film, it does not contain newly copyrightable material. (Putting skill, labor, and money into a project is not enough to qualify it for copyright. The Supreme Court has made clear that “the sine qua non of copyright is originality.”) In the list above, while some of the titles were not registered for copyright until 1928 or 1929, the original version of the film was published with a 1927 copyright notice, so the copyright expires over that version in 2023.

Musical Compositions

Bub Miley, Duke Ellington
  • The Best Things in Life Are Free (George Gard De Sylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson; from the musical Good News)
  • (I Scream You Scream, We All Scream for) Ice Cream (Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, Robert A. King)
  • Puttin’ on the Ritz (Irving Berlin)
  • Funny Face and ’S Wonderful (Ira and George Gershwin; from the musical Funny Face)
  • Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Ol’ Man River (Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern; from the musical Show Boat)
  • Back Water BluesPreaching the BluesFoolish Man Blues (Bessie Smith)
  • Potato Head BluesGully Low Blues (Louis Armstrong)
  • Rusty Pail BluesSloppy Water BluesSoothin’ Syrup Stomp (Thomas Waller)
  • Black and Tan Fantasy and East St. Louis Toodle-O (Bub Miley, Duke Ellington)
  • Billy Goat StompHyena StompJungle Blues (Ferdinand Joseph Morton)
  • My Blue Heaven (George Whiting, Walter Donaldson)
  • Diane (Erno Rapee, Lew Pollack)
  • Mississippi Mud (Harry Barris, James Cavanaugh)
Ice Cream song image
Dessert, anyone? 2023’s newly public domain
works include a song about ice cream and
a film with the Guinness record for the
most pies thrown
 (3,000). A la mode, please!

This year’s musical line-up includes Broadway hits, early blues songs, jazz standards, and more. Only the musical compositions—the music and lyrics that you might see on a piece of sheet music—are entering the public domain, not the recordings of those songs, which are covered by a separate copyright. Irving Berlin’s words and music to Puttin’ on the Ritz were registered for copyright in 1927 and are now free for anyone to copy, perform, record, adapt, or interpolate into their own song. But the 1930 recordings by Harry Richman and by Fred Astaire are still copyrighted. Note, however, that sound recording rights are more limited than composition rights—you can legally imitate a sound recording, even if your imitation sounds exactly the same, you just cannot copy from the actual recording.

Last year, decades of sound recordings made from the advent of recording technology through the end of 1922 went into the public domain. This year no sound recordings are entering the public domain—for that, we will have to wait until January 1, 2024, when recordings from 1923 will become open for legal reuse. 3 

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Keep reading to learn more about the public domain! You can use the links below to jump to different sections of this article.

“The Best Things in Life are Free”

Quote from Marcel Proust
Through art alone, we are able to get
outside of ourselves, to know what another
sees of a universe which is not the same
as ours, and whose landscapes would
otherwise have remained as unknown
to us as those of the moon.

–Marcel Proust, Le Temps Retrouvé
(My translation from the original French)

This is the title of one of the songs entering the public domain in 2023. It’s certainly appropriate for Public Domain Day.

Why celebrate the public domain? When works go into the public domain, they can legally be shared, without permission or fee. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can perform the music publicly, without paying licensing fees. Online repositories such as the Internet ArchiveHathiTrustGoogle Books, and the New York Public Library can make works fully available online. This helps enable access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history. 1927 was a long time ago. The vast majority of works from 1927 are out of circulation. When they enter the public domain in 2023, anyone can rescue them from obscurity and make them available, where we can all discover, enjoy, and breathe new life into them.

The public domain is also a wellspring for creativity. The whole point of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so. Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution—this is a very good thing. But it also ensures that those rights last for a “limited time,” so that when they expire, works go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build on the past—reimagining the books, making them into films, adapting the songs and movies. That’s a good thing too! Think of all the films, cartoons, video games, books, plays, and other works based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865). As explained in a New York Times editorial: “When a work enters the public domain it means the public can afford to use it freely, to give it new currency . . . [public domain works] are an essential part of every artist’s sustenance, of every person’s sustenance.”

Karyn A. Temple, former United States Register of Copyrights, described the public domain as “part of copyright’s lifecycle, the next stage of life for that creative work. The public domain is an inherent and integral part of the copyright system. . . . It provides authors the inspiration and raw material to create something new.”

Just as Shakespeare’s works have given us everything from 10 Things I Hate About You and Kiss Me Kate (from The Taming of the Shrew) to West Side Story (from Romeo and Juliet), who knows what the works entering the public domain in 2023 might inspire? As with Shakespeare, the ability to freely reinvent these works may spur a range of creativity, from the serious to the whimsical, and in doing so allow the original artists’ legacies to endure. And of course Shakespeare himself, who predated copyright law, borrowed heavily from his predecessors. One work inspires another. That is how the public domain feeds creativity.

After F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) entered the public domain in 2021, The New York Times reported a wealth of new editions with introductions by the likes of Times critic and Pulitzer-Prize winner Wesley Morris and Harvard scholar David J. Alworth, bringing “fresh analysis, nearly a century later, of what our ideas of ‘American’ now entail.” There were also new works such as Michael Farris Smith’s prequel Nick, which tells the backstory of Nick Carraway, a graphic novel adaptation, The Gay GatsbyThe Great Gatsby Undead (the zombie edition), and reports of an animated movie as well as a Gatsby musical by Florence Welch from Florence + the Machine. The hosts of Planet Money even created an audio book, reading the entire book on the air.

Last year’s entry of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) into the public domain likewise sparked a range of creativity. The most publicity went to celebrity and incongruous reuses, from Ryan Reynolds’ “Winnie-the-Screwed” ad for Mint Mobile to a comic strip in which Pooh celebrates his nudity to the horror film Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. In my inbox are cuddlier drawings and poems such as this that did not generate as much buzz, but do reflect how Pooh inspired artists and writers on a smaller scale. Are all of these new works critically acclaimed or something rights holders would approve of? No. But they are still part of our culture, and time will tell whether they will be rewarded in the marketplace or have enduring appeal. And, just as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did not diminish the luster of Jane Austin’s novel (at least for me), the original Winnie-the-Pooh remains intact.

This year’s works offer a temporal cross section of our cultural past, capturing the era in its complexity—the good, the bad, and the ugly. They range from stunning and thought-provoking, to adorable and humorous, to racist and disturbing. In 1927 the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, but there was also legally-enforced segregation, and many works from the era contain racial slurs and demeaning stereotypes. 4  When such works enter the public domain, anyone is free to grapple with and reimagine them, including in a corrective way. The public domain is a repository of our history—a record of all of our culture, not just the parts we like. Indeed, it is precisely because the works are no longer subject to control by their copyright holders that both their beauty and their ugliness can be freely explored by today’s scholars and citizens; the owner can no longer insist on presenting only a bowdlerized, cleaned-up version that hides important aspects of the original.

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Logo stating THE LAW

For those who want to learn more about US copyright law, here are some important basics.

  • Our featured works are only entering the public domain under US copyright law, where works published before 1978 are public domain on January 1 the year after the conclusion of a 95-year copyright term, so long as they complied with copyright’s notice and renewal requirements. Doing the math, works from 1927 were copyrighted for 95 years—through 2022—and are in the public domain January 1 2023. The terms in other countries are different. If you are in the US, Der Steppenwolf and Le Temps Retrouvé entered the public domain in 2023. But in the EU, where the term for those works lasts 70 years after the author’s death, Hermann Hesse’s (1877-1962) works are still copyrighted while Marcel Proust’s (1871-1922) works are in the public domain (they came out of copyright a long time ago before the EU extended its term). In the US, works created since 1978 also have the life-plus-70 term, unless they are works of corporate authorship, which are copyrighted for 95 years after publication. (Believe it or not, this is a simplified explanation of copyright terms—more information can be found on this excellent chart on Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.)
  • For all of the works listed above, only the original works published in 1927 are entering the US public domain. Later versions of them—adaptations, movies, or translations—may still be copyrighted. However, those copyrights only cover newly added creative material. The original content from the 1927 book remains free. So the version of Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York published in 1927 is in the public domain, but new material in subsequent versions, translations into other languages, and Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film are still copyrighted.
  • In the US, only the author’s works from 1927 and earlier are in the public domain, not all of the other work published by that author. While you are free to use Hemingway’s short stories in Men without Women (including Hills Like White Elephants and In Another Country), later books such as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) are still copyrighted.

Sherlock Holmes thinking about complexityAs you can see, copyright is unduly complex, and determining whether older works are in the public domain can be an exercise in detective work. The registration and renewal records in the Catalogue of Copyright Entries (CCE) provide a useful starting point—we spend months combing through this data. But sometimes the dates in the CCE do not match the original publication date that is used for calculating the copyright term, and sometimes there are multiple entries for different versions of the same title. In the CCE, The Battle of the Century and The Gangs of New York show a 1928 registration and Wings shows a 1929 date (perhaps for a version of the film with a musical score added). On actual copies of those works, however, there is a copyright notice reading 1927 or MCMXXVII, meaning that the original versions of those works are in the public domain in 2023 (or perhaps earlier if the renewal was not timely). 5  Puttin’ on the Ritz was in a different situation—its registration was in 1927 even though it was not published until later, and under the law the active date is the 1927 registration date. Finally foreign works such as Metropolis and The Lodger are copyrighted through 2022 because of a provision that, in 1996, restored copyright over certain foreign works that were in the public domain because of non-compliance with notice or renewal requirements. For additional guidance from the Copyright Office, see its circulars on Duration of CopyrightHow to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work, and Copyright Restoration Under the URAA. The footnotes to this article also contain more information.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Public Domain Character

<img src="https://web.law.duke.edu/sites/default/files/images/centers/cspd/pdd2023/Mickey.jpg&quot; alt="The first appearances of Mickey and<br/>Minnie Mouse will enter the public
The first appearances of Mickey and Minnie
Mouse will enter the public domain
next year on January 1, 2024.

What happens when a work containing a character such as Sherlock Holmes enters the public domain, but that character also appears in still-copyrighted works? The law is clear that the original version of the character enters the public domain at the same time as the work that contained it, even if subsequent installments or episodes are still under copyright. But not every rights owner likes that answer! This was an important issue last year when the original Winnie-the-Pooh entered the public domain. It will be front and center next year when the first appearance of Mickey Mouse goes into the public domain. And it is a theme this year because in 2023 the copyright will finally expire over The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which contains the last two Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. For years the Doyle estate has tried to prolong copyright over the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Now its character-copyright game is up.

The ingenious detective and his faithful sidekick have actually been in the public domain for a long time. They were first introduced in 1887 and were featured in at least fifty stories that came out of copyright before Congress extended the copyright term in 1998. But that did not stop Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. from demanding licensing fees, based on the characters’ reappearance in a handful of later stories that were still under copyright. Most people simply paid up. The estate even has a website boasting about its licensing deals. But Leslie Klinger, a lawyer and Sherlock Holmes scholar, fought back.

Klinger was the co-editor of In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, an anthology of new Sherlock Holmes stories inspired by Doyle’s works. The Doyle estate threatened to block the book’s distribution, telling the publisher: “do not expect to see it offered for sale by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and similar retailers. We work with those compan[ies] routinely to weed out unlicensed uses of Sherlock Holmes from their offerings, and will not hesitate to do so with your book as well.”

Klinger went to court to seek a declaratory judgment in court that he was free to use the Holmes and Watson characters from Doyle’s public domain works. In response, the Doyle estate presented a bizarre legal theory that a “character is a work of authorship separate from the stories” so that the copyright term for characters does not commence until “the creation of the characters [is] complete.” By this logic, because Sherlock Holmes’ character development continued in stories that were still under copyright, his entire character—including all of the core aspects fully developed in earlier stories—was still copyrighted. This would have created a special end-run around the public domain for characters, who would remain copyrighted so long as their owners keep tweaking them in subsequent works, potentially forever.

“It is a bedrock principle of copyright that once work enters the public domain it cannot be appropriated as private (intellectual) property, and even the most creative of legal theories cannot trump this tenet.” –Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate (N.D. Ill. 2013)

In December 2013, a court decisively rejected this theory and confirmed that all of the elements in the out-of-copyright Sherlock Holmes stories are “free for public use.” It explained: “Where an author has used the same character in a series of works, some of which are in the public domain, the public is free to copy story elements from the public domain works.”

The estate appealed, in a move that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals described as bordering on the “frivolous” and “quixotic.” The appeals court affirmed Klinger’s right to use the Holmes and Watson characters and awarded him attorney’s fees. Judge Richard Posner called out the estate’s “unlawful business strategy”:

The Doyle estate’s business strategy is plain: charge a modest license fee for which there is no legal basis, in the hope that the ‘rational’ writer or publisher asked for the fee will pay it rather than incur a greater cost, in legal expenses, in challenging the legality of the demand…only Klinger (so far as we know) resisted. In effect he was a private attorney general, combating a disreputable business practice — a form of extortion…It’s time the estate, in its own self-interest, changed its business model. Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate (7th Cir. 2014)

Instead of changing its business model, however, the Doyle estate mounted another “curious” copyright claim in 2020, this time against the Enola Holmes Mysteries books and Netflix’s first Enola Holmes movie. It acknowledged that anyone is “free to use and adapt the characters” in the public domain Sherlock Holmes stories. Its new theory was that it had a copyright in certain personality traits that Holmes exhibited in later, still-copyrighted stories, where he “became capable of friendship,” began to “express emotion” and “respect women,” and even developed a “great interest” in dogs. This theory did not succeed. It is “elementary” copyright doctrine that generic traits such as warmth, empathy, respect, and canine enthusiasm are unprotectable ideas. 6  The parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit and settled in December 2020.

Image of Sherlock Holmes

As of 2023, all of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes works will be in the public domain. There will no longer be any mystery about whether Klinger, Netflix, or anyone else can use Holmes and Watson. The estate’s unsuccessful attempts to artificially extend their copyrights until this milestone illustrate two key legal points.

  • First, under US copyright law, anyone is free to use a character as it has been developed in public domain works, whether it is Winnie-the-Pooh, Sherlock Holmes, or Mickey Mouse (next year). If that character recurs in later works that are still under copyright, the rights only extend to the newly added material in those works, not the underlying material from the public domain works—that content remains freely available.
  • Second, not all of the newly added material in the later works is copyrightable. In order to qualify for copyright, it must be “original, creative expression,” meaning that it was independently created (as opposed to copied from somewhere else) and possesses at least a modicum of creativity. Mere “ideas” such as generic character traits are not copyrightable. Nor are “merely trivial” variations added to the original character. In addition, using commonplace elements that have become standard or indispensable (copyright law calls these “scènes à faire”) is not infringement.

For more information, including the interaction between expired copyrights and a different set of rules under trademark law, you can read our analysis of Winnie-the-Pooh and copyright and trademark claims over public domain characters here.

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Saving silent films

1927 was a transitional year for cinema. The release of The Jazz Singer—the first feature-length “talkie” with (brief) synchronized dialogue, along with singing and sound effects—ushered in the beginning of the end of the silent film era. Unfortunately, the film also shows performances in blackface, a distressing reminder of the racist stereotypes that dominated portrayals of African-Americans in popular culture.

Most of the films on our list are from the last hurrah of silent features. Many were pathbreaking works of art that influenced generations to come. Wings set the standard for aerial combat footage, from World War II movies to Top Gun. Its director, William Wellman, had himself been a decorated fighter pilot in World War I, and over 300 pilots helped to create the realistic dogfight scenes. (You can read more Wellman and the film’s production in this book by Wellman’s son.) Metropolis laid the cinematic groundwork for many familiar movies. Here is how Roger Ebert described its impact and progeny:

Generally considered the first great science-fiction film, “Metropolis” (1927) fixed for the rest of the century the image of a futuristic city as a hell of scientific progress and human despair. From this film, in various ways, descended not only “Dark City” but “Blade Runner,” “The Fifth Element,” “Alphaville,” “Escape From L.A.,” “Gattaca,” and Batman’s Gotham City. The laboratory of its evil genius, Rotwang, created the visual look of mad scientists for decades to come, especially after it was mirrored in “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). And the device of the “false Maria,” the robot who looks like a human being, inspired the “Replicants” of “Blade Runner.” Even Rotwang’s artificial hand was given homage in “Dr. Strangelove.”

As incredible as such films are to watch, it is equally incredible that we are able to watch them at all. The rise of sound films precipitated the demise of silent films. Studios (wrongly) believed that their silent film libraries no longer had commercial or cultural value. Tragically, films were destroyed or discarded to clear up storage space or melted down for the silver contained in their substrate. Films that were not destroyed were allowed to decay. The cellulose nitrate base of these older films was prone to shrinkage, outgassing, even spontaneous combustion, and many works have deteriorated beyond repair. In 2013 David Pierce issued an in-depth Library of Congress study called The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929. In the Foreword, the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington summed up its finding that 75% of American silent films are lost to history in their complete form:

The Library of Congress can now authoritatively report that the loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record. Even if we could preserve all the silent-era films known to exist today in the U.S. and in foreign film archives—something not yet accomplished—it is certain that we and future generations have already lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the twentieth century.

The long copyright term has contributed to the loss of our cinematic heritage. 7  One of the most important stated goals of copyright term extension was to preserve access to our culture. Instead, old films have disintegrated, rotting in their cans, while preservationists eagerly waited for them to enter the public domain so that they could legally digitize them. (There is a narrow provision in the law allowing for some restorations, but it is limited and does not safeguard the work of many preservationists. You can read our analysis of how long copyright terms thwart film preservation efforts here.) The Library of Congress report confirms: “The public domain status of some films has encouraged their survival,” referring to films that came out of copyright because the rights were not renewed, which allowed others to invest in their preservation.

A photograph of Lon Chaney in the lost film London After Midnight
A photograph of Lon Chaney in the
lost film London After Midnight

A search in the Library of Congress’ silent film database indicates that two of the features on our list—London After Midnight and The Way of All Flesh—are likely to be lost forever. Only still photographs shot during filming remain for London After Midnight, and only fragments remain for The Way of All Flesh.

Other films on the list have only been restored through dedication, serendipity, and a lot of money. Most of director John Ford’s silent films are lost, but in 2009, Upstream was discovered in New ZealandWings was also long forgotten and feared lost. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, “The original nitrate negative and early material had long disappeared, so Paramount searched the world for the best remaining elements, finally finding the most comprehensive print — a duplicate negative made from a nitrate print in the late 1950s — in its own vaults.” In 2012, Paramount restored the film for the studio’s 100th anniversary. No one knows who made that duplicate negative; Andrea Kalas, Vice President of Archives at Paramount, told Forbes, “whoever it was, thank you very much, in the late 1950s, for saving this film.” Unfortunately Kalas also suggested at the San Francisco silent film festival that the expensive restoration—a $700,000 investment—was unlikely to be recouped.

The original, longer cut of Metropolis was considered lost until relatively recently, to the dismay of film historians and enthusiasts. Then in 2008 a copy with the missing scenes was found in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Argentina in 2008. Another was found in the National Film Archive of New Zealand. These discoveries allowed most—but not all—of the original to be reassembled in The Complete Metropolis (2010). Some of the original footage was damaged beyond repair; those scenes were replaced with title cards. Celebrating the reconstructed film, Larry Rohter wrote in The New York Times:

For fans and scholars of the silent-film era, the search for a copy of the original version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” has become a sort of holy grail. One of the most celebrated movies in cinema history, “Metropolis” had not been viewed at its full length roughly two and a half hours since shortly after its premiere in Berlin in 1927…for the first time, Lang’s vision of a technologically advanced, socially stratified urban dystopia, which has influenced contemporary films like “Blade Runner” and “Star Wars,” seems complete and comprehensible.

Scenes from Metropolis
Scenes from Metropolis

As is often the case, the story of Metropolis has a copyright wrinkle. The Complete Metropolis has its own copyright but, as reflected in its copyright registration, this copyright only covers newly added “English Intertitles” (title cards). The pre-existing silent footage and original intertitles from 1927 are out of copyright. And this is actually the second time that Metropolis has gone into the US public domain. The first was in 1955, when its initial 28-year term expired and the rights holders did not renew the copyright. Then in 1996 a new law restored the copyrights in qualifying foreign works. Metropolis, along with thousands of other works, was pulled out of the public domain, and now reenters it after the expiration of the 95-year term, with the once missing scenes available for anyone to reuse.

The pie fight from Battle of the Century
The pie fight from Battle of the Century

From a futuristic dystopia in we turn to another, more light-hearted “holy grail”…the long lost pie-fighting scene from The Battle of the CenturyBattle is a short comedy from Laurel and Hardy, who officially became a duo in 1927. (Also entering the public domain from 1927 is Laurel and Hardy’s Putting Pants on Philip.) The film holds a Guinness World Record for “the largest number of pies thrown in a custard pie sequence in a movie.” How many pies? 3,000. The novelist Henry Miller remembered it as “the greatest comic film ever made — because it brought the pie-throwing to apotheosis.” For decades, the second reel containing this legendary pie fight was considered lost. Film historian Leonard Maltin called it “a holy grail of comedy” in The New York Times. As described by Neely Tucker on the Library of Congress blog: “It seemed to be a flickering bit of entertainment lost to time, disintegrating film stock and a too-late appreciation of an outdated art form.” Then in 2015 a copy was discovered by Jon Mirsalis, a toxicologist by profession who is also a film collector and silent film accompanist. Mirsalis had obtained a collection of over 2,300 films from the estate of his late friend Gordon Berkow. He spent months making his way through the piles of canisters. When the Battle pie scene shone from his projector, Mirsalis recalls: “I was watching with my jaw hanging open.” While no complete copy of Battle survives, a nearly-complete version of Battle has since been reassembled from various collections, including those at the Library of Congress, MoMA, and UCLA and you can watch it on YouTube here (note the MCMXXVII copyright notice at the beginning). The Library of Congress offers this reflection: “‘Battle’ offers a stark illustration of the detective work (and luck) required to locate and preserve films from the silent era.”

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The Tip of the (Melting) Iceberg

Many of the works featured above are famous; that is why we included them. Their copyright holders benefitted from 20 more years of copyright because the works had enduring popularity and were still earning royalties. But when Congress extended the copyright term for works like To The Lighthouse, it also did so for all of the works whose commercial viability had long subsided. For the vast majority—probably 99%—of works from 1927, no copyright holder financially benefited from continued copyrightYet they remained off limits, for no good reason. (A Congressional Research Service report indicated that only around 2% of copyrights between 55 and 75 years old retain commercial value. After 75 years, that percentage is even lower. Most older works are “orphan works,” where the copyright owner cannot be found at all.)

Now that these works are in the public domain, anyone can make them available to the public. This enables access to our cultural heritage—access to materials that might otherwise be forgotten. As mentioned earlier, 1927 was a long time ago. The majority of works from that year are out of circulation. When they enter the public domain in 2023, anyone can republish or post them online. (Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see herehere, and here.) The works listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more works are waiting to be rediscovered.

Unfortunately, part of this iceberg has already melted. As the story of our silent film heritage shows, the fact that works from 1927 are legally available does not mean they are actually available. After 95 years, many of them are already lost, evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. For the material that has survived, however, the long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate.

Another part of the iceberg includes works from 1927 and later that may already be in the public domain because the copyright owners did not comply with the “formalities” that used to be necessary for copyright protection. In the past, your work went into the public domain if you did not include a copyright notice—e.g. “Copyright 1927 Virginia Woolf”—when publishing it, or if you did not renew the copyright after 28 years. We know that works published in 1927 and earlier are out of copyright in 2023, but so are works published from 1928-1977 without a copyright notice, works published from 1978-3/1/1989 without a notice and without subsequent registration within five years (the registration fixed the lack of copyright notice), and works published from 1928-1963 with a notice but without a copyright renewal. On our websites for the previous two years, for example, we noted that The General (1926, Buster Keaton) and The Gold Rush (1925, Charlie Chaplin) were already in the public domain due to non-renewal. Current copyright law no longer has these requirements. Even though these works might technically be in the public domain, however, as a practical matter users sometimes have to assume they’re still copyrighted (or risk a lawsuit) because the relevant copyright information is difficult to find—older records can be fragmentary, confused, or lost. That’s why Public Domain Day is so significant. On January 1, 2023, the public will know for sure that all works published in 1927 and earlier are free for use without tedious or inconclusive research to find out if the copyright holder complied with formalities. Still, it is worth shining a light on this “invisible public domain”—including all of the works that entered the public domain years ago due to non-renewal. 8 

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Oh NO, Canada!

Image from FrozenWhile the US finally turned on the public domain spigot in 2019, after a 20-year drought, Canada’s government has now decided to turn its spigot offOn December 30, 2022, Canada is freezing its public domain for the next 20 years with its C-19 copyright law. Yes, that’s right, Canada is doing the same thing the US did in 1998, with all of the negative effects that have now been well documented.

The verdict is in: adding an extra 20 years to the US copyright term was a “big mistake.” This is not a quote from someone who is equivocal about copyright; it is a quote from the former head of our Copyright Office. Indeed, there is a consensus among policymakers, economists, and academics that lengthy copyright extensions impose costs that far outweigh their benefits. Why? The benefits are minuscule—economists (including five Nobel laureates) have shown that term extension does not spur additional creativity. At the same time, it causes enormous harm, locking away millions of older works that are no longer generating any revenue for the copyright holders. Films have disintegrated because preservationists can’t digitize them. The works of historians and journalists are incomplete. Artists find their cultural heritage off limits. (See studies like the Hargreaves Review commissioned by the UK government, empirical comparisons of the availability of copyrighted works and public domain works, and economic studies of the effects of copyright.)

So…no one would be silly enough to keep extending copyright, right? Wrong! Incredibly, countries such as Canada are still lengthening their copyright terms—not as a result of reasoned debate, but to comply with trade deals that require harmonization of copyright terms. With harmonization, there is a catch: countries are always made to harmonize with the longer term, never the shorter term, even if the shorter term is a better choice for both economic and policy reasons. Because of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, Canada is expanding its copyright term from an already long life-plus-50 to a longer life-plus-70 years, even though—as Professor Michael Geist explained—the Canadian term extension would “cost Canadian education millions of dollars and would delay works entering the public domain for an entire generation.” Even worse, as Professor Geist writes, the government chose to do so without “mitigation measures to reduce the economic cost and cultural harm that comes from term extension.” Universities, students, teachers, librarians, copyright experts, and even Canada’s own Minister of Justice had recommended a modest registration requirement for the additional 20 years of copyright. This would have given the full copyright term to rights holders who wanted it while allowing works that were no longer being commercially exploited—including orphan works—to enter the public domain. But the government rejected these recommendations.

This is irrational. It would be more efficient to simply levy a new tax on the public and give the proceeds to the small percentage of copyright holders whose works are still making money after a life-plus-50 term. The term extensions not only transfer wealth to a tiny subset of rights owners, but also lock away the remaining works from future creators and the public. Canada is not alone; New Zealand has also agreed to extend its copyright term as a concession in trade agreements, even though this “would cost around $55m [NZ dollars] annually” without “any compelling evidence that it would provide a public benefit,” as pointed out by Michael Wolfe, a former fellow at our Center and expert in copyright policy.

Despite overwhelming evidence that term extension does more harm than good, countries are still extending their copyrights. Even as we celebrate a new crop of public domain works, it is important to realize that the global public domain remains under threat. This makes an understanding of its vital contributions—to creativity, access, education, history—all the more important.

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Born in the Public Domain

Pillars of Creation (NIRCam and MIRI Composite Image) from NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute
Pillars of Creation (NIRCam and MIRI
Composite Image) from NASA and the
Space Telescope Science Institute

In the US, works from 1927 are only entering the public domain after almost a century. But some material is in the public domain from the beginning. This includes ideas, facts, and raw data, which can never be copyrighted. It also includes official works of the US government such as legislation, regulations, legal opinions, hearings, and speeches. As government works, the images from the James Webb telescope, the NASA collections NASA on The Commons (flickr) and NASA image and video library, the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken by astronaut William Anders, and the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (a pictorial record of American life from 1935-1944) are all copyright-free! Finally, creators can choose to dedicate their works to the public domain, and many have done so using Creative Commons’ CC0 tool.

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What Could Have Been

This site celebrates works from 1927 that are in the public domain after a 95-year copyright term. However, under the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1966 would be entering the public domain this year. Under current copyright terms we will have to wait until 2062. In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1994 might be entering the public domain! Imagine what the great libraries of the world—or just internet hobbyists—could do: digitizing those holdings, making them available for education and research, for pleasure and for creative reuse.

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Conclusion

Each year, I create this guide to the works that will be entering the US public domain. Each year’s site is a celebration, of course, but it is a bittersweet one. We celebrate the emergence of hundreds of thousands works into the public domain, where everyone can build on them, remake them, present new versions of them, or use them for education or simply enjoyment. The research is complicated and mind-numbingly finicky—and we are lawyers whose professional expertise is copyright and the public domain; further proof of the barriers that poorly chosen copyright regimes can present to those who want to obey the law but cannot easily find out what material is free to use and what is not. A clearer system would benefit us all: artists, citizens and entrepreneurs. But it is not the complexity of the research that provides the bittersweet sentiment; our annual review gets a gratifying degree of attention and a Center for the Study of the Public Domain that was unwilling to…study the public domain would be a strange beast indeed.

The melancholy comes from the unnecessary losses that our current system causes—the vast majority of works that no longer retain commercial value and are not otherwise available, yet we lock them all up to provide exclusivity to a tiny minority. Those works which, remember, constitute part of our collective culture, are simply off limits for use without fear of legal liability. Since most of them are “orphan works” (where the copyright owner cannot be found) we could not get permission from a rights holder even if we wanted to. And many of those works do not survive that long cultural winter. As with the lost silent films I described, all that we have left of them are fragments or stills and some tantalizing contemporary descriptions. Professor Hal Abelson, the MIT computer scientist, once asked: “What does it mean to be human if we don’t have a shared culture?  And what does a shared culture mean if you can’t share it?” On Public Domain Day, that act of grateful sharing begins for another year of our culture, something to celebrate indeed. Yet we should also spare a moment to regret that which we have lost.

Want to learn more about the public domain? Here is the legal background on how we got our current copyright terms (including summaries of court cases), why the public domain matters, and answers to Frequently Asked Questions. You can also read James Boyle’s book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008)—naturally, you can read the full text of The Public Domain online at no cost and you are free to copy and redistribute it for non-commercial purposes. For a detailed guide to identifying public domain material, you can purchase Stephen Fishman’s The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More. You can also read “In Ambiguous Battle: The Promise (and Pathos) of Public Domain Day,” an article by Center Director Jennifer Jenkins revealing the promise and the limits of various attempts to reverse the erosion of the public domain, and a short article in the Huffington Post, both referring to a previous Public Domain Day.

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1 The copyright term for older works is different in other countries. In the EU, works from authors who died in 1952 are going into the public domain in 2023 after a life-plus-70 year term. In the US, only works from 1927 that were 1) published with the authorization of the author or 2) unpublished but properly registered with the Copyright Office in 1927 are entering the public domain in 2023, after a 95-year term. Unpublished works that were not registered with the Copyright Office before 1978 enter the public domain after a life-plus-70 term. In 2023, unpublished works from authors who died in 1952 will therefore go into the public domain. But, because these works were never published, potential users are much less likely to encounter them. In addition, it is difficult to determine whether works were “published” for copyright purposes. Therefore, this site focuses on the thousands of published works that are finally entering the public domain.

2 The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act gave works published from 1923 through 1977 a 95-year term, expiring on January 1 after the conclusion of the 95th year. Works published before 1978 had to meet certain requirements to be eligible for the 95-year term—they all had to be published with a copyright notice, and works from before 1964 also had to have their copyrights renewed after an initial 28-year term.

The works on our lists are in the public domain because of either a 1927 registration or publication with a 1927 copyright notice. Sometimes there is a 1928 or 1929 registration for a work published in 1927, but this does not prevent copyright from expiring over the original 1927 publication. For most of the featured works we were also able to track down the renewal data indicating that they are still in-copyright through the end of 2022 and affirmatively entering the public domain in 2023.

Foreign works from 1927 were still copyrighted in the US until 2023 if 1) they complied with US notice and renewal formalities, 2) they were published in the US within 30 days of publication abroad, or 3) if neither of these are true, they were still copyrighted in their home country as of 1/1/96. The foreign works on our list met these criteria.

Our site features books, movies, and musical compositions. There are also other creative works entering the public domain, including drawings, paintings, and photography. We have not listed them here because it was more difficult to track down complete copyright information for them.

3 Many sites say that sound recordings from 1923 enter the public domain in 2023—adding 100 years to the date of publication—but these recordings actually go into the public domain on January 1 of the subsequent year, in 2024. Note that the term of protection for sound recordings in other countries is different from the one in the US: in the EU it is 70 years, and elsewhere it is 50 years.

4 There was also rampant exploitation of Black talent: Black musicians, for example, were routinely excluded from copyright’s benefits and denied both recognition and compensation for their work. To learn more about the unequal treatment of Black artists, you can read the excellent scholarship of Professor Kevin J. Greene, including Copyright, Culture & (and) Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection and “Copynorms,” Black Cultural Production, and the Debate over African-American Reparations; Professor Olufunmilayo Arewa, including From J.C. Bach to Hip Hop: Musical Borrowing, Copyright and Cultural ContextBlues Lives: Promise and Perils of Musical Copyright and Writing Rights: Copyright’s Visual Bias and African American Music; and Professor Lateef Mtima, including Intellectual Property, Entrepreneurship and Social Justice: From Swords to Ploughshares.

5 Under the governing copyright law from 1909, the initial term of copyright was 28 years from the “date of first publication” and the relevant publication date was “the earliest date when copies of the first authorized edition were placed on sale, sold, or publicly distributed.” If the copyright was not renewed “within one year prior to the expiration of the original term of copyright” the work went into the public domain at the end of the first 28-year term. According to the 1960 Copyright Law Revision Notice of Copyright Study, date discrepancies are resolved “in favor of the public” and the “term of protection is computed from the earlier date.” The 1960 Copyright Law Revision Copyright Renewal Study adds that “when the copyright notice on a published work contains a date earlier than the year when copyright was actually secured, the first term, and hence the renewal time limits, are computed from the last day of the year in the notice.” With works such as Wings, it is possible that the original film technically went into the public domain in 1955 due to lack of timely renewal, because the renewal was within 28 years of the 1929 registration rather than the 1927 publication.

6 Courts have held that being “nice,” having a “cocky attitude,” and being “young, attractive, and sarcastic” are not independently copyrightable See Shame on You Prods. v. Banks (C.D. Cal. 2015, aff’d 9th Cir. 2017); Campbell v. Walt Disney Co. (N.D. Cal. 2010); Gable v. Nat’l Broad. Co. (C.D. Cal. 2010). You can read the documents from the Enola Holmes litigation here.

7 Endangered film footage goes well beyond the kinds of studio productions are featured here, and includes works of historical value such as newsreels, anthropological and regional films, rare footage documenting daily life for ethnic minorities, and advertising and corporate shorts.

8 Millions of books published from 1927–1963 are actually in the public domain because the copyright owners did not renew the rights. Efforts have been underway to unlock this “secret” public domain, but compiling a definitive list of those titles is a daunting task. The relevant registration and renewal information is in the 450,000-page Catalog of Copyright Entries (“CCE”). Currently there is no way to reliably search the entire CCE, but thankfully, the New York Public Library and others are in the midst of converting the CCE into a machine-searchable format. Even after this is complete, however, confirming that works without apparent renewals are in the public domain involves additional complexities. The HathiTrust Copyright Review Program reports: “Since 2008, over 195 reviewers at 53 institutions have reviewed 900,000 items, determining that more than 509,000 are no longer protected by copyright and have entered the public domain.” These items can therefore be made available online. The work of the New York Public Library, HathiTrust, and other groups continues, with the goal of opening these public domain books to the public.


Written by Jennifer Jenkins. Special thanks to Michael Wright and Grant Young for building this site and to Balfour Smith for researching works from 1927.

 Public Domain Day 2023 by Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Article source: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2023/

Public Domain Day 2022: Works from 1926 and a wealth of recordings enter the public domain

By Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain

January 1, 2022, is Public Domain Day: Works from 1926 are open to all, as is a cornucopia of recorded music: an estimated 400,000 sound recordings from before 1923!

Montage of 1926 Works

On January 1, 2022, copyrighted works from 1926 will enter the US public domain, 1  where they will be free for all to copy, share, and build upon. The line-up this year is stunning. It includes books such as A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Felix Salten’s Bambi, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues, and Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope. There are scores of silent films—including titles featuring Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Greta Garbo, famous Broadway songs, and well-known jazz standards. But that’s not all. In 2022 we get a bonus: an estimated 400,000 sound recordings from before 1923 2  will be entering the public domain too!

Winnie the Pooh is now a multi-billion dollar franchise. After copyright expires over the original book, will there be a war between the Pooh brand and the public domain?

In 2022, the public domain will welcome a lot of “firsts”: the first Winnie-the-Pooh book from A. A. Milne, the first published novels from Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, the first books of poems from Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker. What’s more, for the first time ever, thanks to a 2018 law called the Music Modernization Act, a special category of works—sound recordings—will finally begin to join other works in the public domain. On January 1 2022, the gates will open for all of the recordings that have been waiting in the wings. Decades of recordings made from the advent of sound recording technology through the end of 1922—estimated at some 400,000 works—will be open for legal reuse.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet walking in the snowWhy celebrate the public domain? When works go into the public domain, they can legally be shared, without permission or fee. That is something Winnie-the-Pooh would appreciate. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can perform the music publicly, without paying licensing fees. Online repositories such as the Internet ArchiveHathiTrust, and Google Books can make works fully available online. This helps enable access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history. 1926 was a long time ago. The vast majority of works from 1926 are out of circulation. When they enter the public domain in 2022, anyone can rescue them from obscurity and make them available, where we can all discover, enjoy, and breathe new life into them.

The public domain is also a wellspring for creativity. The whole point of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so. Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution—this is a very good thing. But it also ensures that those rights last for a “limited time,” so that when they expire, works go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build on the past—reimagining the books, making them into films, adapting the songs and movies. That’s a good thing too! As explained in a New York Times editorial:

When a work enters the public domain it means the public can afford to use it freely, to give it new currency . . . [public domain works] are an essential part of every artist’s sustenance, of every person’s sustenance. 3 

Just as Shakespeare’s works have given us everything from 10 Things I Hate About You and Kiss Me Kate (from The Taming of the Shrew) to West Side Story (from Romeo and Juliet), who knows what the works entering the public domain in 2022 might inspire? As with Shakespeare, the ability to freely reimagine these works may spur a range of creativity, from the serious to the whimsical, and in doing so allow the original artists’ legacies to endure.

Here is a more detailed snapshot of just a few of the books, sound recordings, movies, and musical compositions that will be in the public domain in 2022. 4  They were supposed to go into the public domain in 2002, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years. Now the wait is over. (To find more material from 1926, you can visit the Catalogue of Copyright Entries.) 5 

Books

'Show Boat' by Edna Ferber book cover
  • A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, decorations by E. H. Shepard 6 
  • Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  • Dorothy Parker, Enough Rope (her first collection of poems)
  • Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues
  • T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (later adapted into the film Lawrence of Arabia)
  • Felix Salten, Bambi, A Life in the Woods
  • Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam
  • Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • Edna Ferber, Show Boat
  • William Faulkner, Soldiers’ Pay (his first novel)
  • Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy
  • D. H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent
  • H. L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy

What don’t you know about the original, darker, and more interesting BambiFind out here. Now that Bambi is in the public domain, 2022 will bring a fresh translation of the original.

What a list! There is a lot to be excited about—beloved children’s characters, an iconic story of the “lost generation” after World War I, poetry from a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance and pioneer of the blues and jazz aesthetic, and clever verse from the “wittiest woman in America.” Note that in all of these cases, what is going into the public domain are the specific works from 1926, not the later books, movies, or translations based on the original books, or all of the other work by that author. Thus, while you will be free to use the material from the original Winnie-the-Pooh book, not every Pooh story or movie or Hemingway novel or Langston Hughes poem is entering the public domain.

Sound Recordings 

Sound Recordings

In 2022, experts estimate that some 400,000 sound recordings published before 1923 will enter the public domain! They will become free for all to download, remix, or use in a soundtrack.

US copyright law treats musical compositions and sound recordings differently. A composition consists of the lyrics and music that you might see on a piece of sheet music. A sound recording is the embodiment of a particular performance of that composition, fixed on media such as vinyl records or on digital audio files. If I write a song called “Public Domain Day!” and you record it, I get the copyright over the composition and you get a separate copyright over your recording of my song. 7 

While US copyright law has covered compositions since 1831, it did not add the sound recording right until Feburary 15, 1972. The new right only covered recordings made from that date onward, leaving recordings made before 1972 subject to a confusing patchwork of state laws, with nothing becoming public domain until 2067. 8  The 2018 “Music Modernization Act” brought all of those pre-1972 recordings under federal law and set a timeline for older recordings to gradually enter the public domain. 9 

The first big date was January 1, 2022, when a trove of recordings finally goes into the public domain. (The underlying compositions are already in the public domain because their copyright terms expired earlier—all songs published in 1926 and earlier are public domain.) Yes, these recordings are a century or more old, but better late than never!

What will we celebrate in 2022? Everything from experiments with nascent sound recording technology in the late 1800s to opera, classical music, early blues and jazz, vaudeville, ragtime, popular songs, and comedy sketches. With so many recordings to choose from, we can only feature a few of them here. To listen to more recordings, check out the selections from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections and go to the Library of Congress National Jukebox—in 2022 the Library of Congress will make all of the pre-1923 recordings in its collection available for download from this site, while recordings from 1923 forward will be streaming-only until they are in the public domain. As you look through the following list, note that only the pre-1923 recordings made by these artists are entering the public domain, not their later recordings.

Sound Recordings Entering the Public Domain

Pablo Casals, sound recordings

These recordings reintroduce us to some legendary figures. There are incredible artists such as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters, who paved the way for generations to follow, and in Waters’ case became a proud icon for the LGBTQ community. You can hear the first tracks from legendary opera singer Enrico Caruso, or the transcendent cellist Pablo Casals. Even on a scratchy recording from over 100 years ago, the magic comes through with all of these artists. There are recordings by Fanny Brice, the real-life Funny Girl portrayed by Barbra Streisand. There is the multi-talented Sophie Tucker, called “the last of the red-hot mamas.” Bert Williams was the first Black artist to break through the color barrier and star in a leading role on Broadway. Kid Ory recorded the first commercially-released tracks by a New Orleans African-American jazz band. You can hear Europe’s Society Orchestra, the first African-American orchestra to have their work recorded, and Cuban-born conductor Max Dolin directing his orchestra for “La Golondrina.”

For us, these recordings provide an aural time capsule, a way of capturing fragments of the past. You can browse pop stars from Billy Murray to Harry Lauder, or hear John Phillip Sousa’s marches. But you also get a glimpse of the politics of the time. Some of our favorites include songs about women’s suffrage (“She’s Good Enough to Be Your Baby’s Mother (and She’s Good Enough to Vote With You)”) and comic laments about Prohibition such as Bert Williams’ “Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar.”

Rediscovering the incredible early recordings by African-American artists is also an occasion for more somber reflection. They were recording at a time of legally-enforced segregation and the shameful tradition of minstrel shows. 10  Many of the songs from the era contain racist language and demeaning and misleading stereotypes. There was also rampant exploitation of Black talent: Black musicians were routinely excluded from copyright’s benefits and denied both recognition and compensation for their work. The artists featured above were unusual in that they gained some recognition for their contributions in the face of a colossally unfair system, but this does not mean that they were treated fairly. Discrimination, lopsided contracts, and an exclusionary music business deprived many of these artists of the compensation their work so richly deserved. 11 

Movies Entering the Public Domain

'For Heaven's Sake' movie poster
  • For Heaven’s Sake (starring Harold Lloyd)
  • Battling Butler (starring Buster Keaton) 12 
  • The Son of the Sheik (starring Rudolph Valentino)
  • The Temptress (starring Greta Garbo)
  • Moana (docufiction filmed in Samoa)
  • Faust (German expressionist classic)
  • So This Is Paris (based on the play Le Réveillon)
  • Don Juan (first feature-length film to use the Vitaphone sound system)
  • The Cohens and Kellys (prevailed in a famous copyright lawsuit)
  • The Winning of Barbara Worth (a Western, known for its flood scene)

The first four films on the list include performances by the great Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino, and Greta Garbo. Moana is a work of docufiction filmed in Samoa by Robert J. Flaherty, who made the famous 1922 film Nanook of the North. Copyright buffs will remember The Cohens and Kellys from the famous copyright case Nichols v. Universal, in which Judge Learned Hand said (among other things) that stock characters are not copyrightable. Faust is a German expressionist take on the eponymous play by Goethe. Because Goethe’s play was in the public domain, the filmmakers were free to reimagine it. And that borrowing went in more than one direction. On the right, you can see one of the scenes in Faust, which inspired the strikingly similar “Night on Bald Mountain” scene from Disney’s Fantasia.

Musical Compositions

Every piece of recorded music is covered by two distinct copyrights, one over the original composition—the words and music—and the second over the actual recording of the song. Earlier we listed sound recordings from before 1923 entering the public domain. Here are some of the compositions from 1926 that will be joining them.

'Someone To Watch Over Me' by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, musical composition
  • Bye Bye Black Bird (Ray Henderson, Mort Dixon)
  • Snag It (Joseph ‘King’ Oliver)
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Irving Berlin)
  • Black Bottom Stomp (Ferd ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton)
  • Someone To Watch Over Me (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)
  • Nessun Dorma from Turandot (Giacomo Puccini, Franco Alfano, Giusseppe Adami, Renato Simoni)
  • Are You Lonesome To-Night (Roy Turk, Lou Handman)
  • When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along (Harry Woods)
  • Ke Kali Nei Au (“Waiting For Thee”) (Charles E. King), in 1958 renamed Hawaiian Wedding Song with new lyrics (English) by Hoffman & Manning
  • Cossack Love Song (Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II, George Gershwin, Herbert Stothart)

The Tip of the (Melting) Iceberg

Many of the works featured above are famous; that is why we included them. Their copyright holders benefitted from 20 more years of copyright because the works had enduring popularity and were still earning royalties. But when Congress extended the copyright term for works like The Sun Also Rises, it also did so for all of the works whose commercial viability had long subsided. For the vast majority—probably 99%—of works from 1926, no copyright holder financially benefited from continued copyrightYet they remained off limits, for no good reason. (A Congressional Research Service report indicated that only around 2% of copyrights between 55 and 75 years old retain commercial value. After 75 years, that percentage is even lower. Most older works are “orphan works,” where the copyright owner cannot be found at all.)

Now that these works are in the public domain, anyone can make them available to the public. This enables access to our cultural heritage—access to materials that might otherwise be forgotten. As mentioned earlier, 1926 was a long time ago and the majority of works from that year are out of circulation. When they enter the public domain in 2022, anyone can republish or post them online. (Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see herehere, and here.) The works listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more works are waiting to be rediscovered.

Unfortunately, part of this iceberg has already melted. The fact that works from 1926 are legally available does not mean they are actually available. After 95 years, many of these works are already lost or literally disintegrating (as with old films and recordings 13 ), evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. One of the films from 1926 we considered featuring was The Great Gatsby, an adaptation of the 1925 novel. But that film has reportedly been lost to history. 14  For the material that has survived, however, the long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate.

Another part of the iceberg includes works from 1926 and later that may already be in the public domain because the copyright owners did not comply with the “formalities” that used to be necessary for copyright protection. 15  Back then, your work went into the public domain if you did not include a copyright notice—e.g. “Copyright 1926 Ernest Hemingway”—when publishing it, or if you did not renew the copyright after 28 years. Current copyright law no longer has these requirements. But, even though those works might technically be in the public domain, as a practical matter the public often has to assume they’re still copyrighted (or risk a lawsuit) because the relevant copyright information is difficult to find—older records can be fragmentary, confused, or lost. That’s why Public Domain Day is so significant. On January 1, 2022, the public will know that works published in 1926 are free for use without tedious or inconclusive research.

In an abundance of caution, our lists of works form 1926 include only works where we were able to track down the renewal data indicating that they are still in-copyright through the end of 2021, and affirmatively entering the public domain in 2022. However, there were many exciting works from 1926 for which we could not locate renewals. They will also be in the public domain in 2022 but may have entered the public domain decades ago due to lack of renewal.

Winnie-the-Pooh with head in hunny potSo . . . No One Would Be Silly Enough to Keep Extending Copyright, Right?

Wrong! Despite overwhelming evidence that term extension does more harm than good, countries are still extending their copyrights. The public domain remains under threat. This makes an understanding of its vital contributions—to creativity, access, education, history—all the more important.

The verdict is in: adding an extra 20 years to the US copyright term was a “big mistake.” This is not a quote from someone who is equivocal about copyright; it is a quote from the former head of our Copyright Office. Indeed, there is a consensus among policymakers, economists, and academics that lengthy copyright extensions impose costs that far outweigh their benefits. Why? The benefits are minuscule—economists (including five Nobel laureates) have shown that term extension does not spur additional creativity. At the same time, it causes enormous harm, locking away millions of older works that are no longer generating any revenue for the copyright holders. Films are literally disintegrating because preservationists can’t digitize them. The works of historians and journalists are incomplete. Artists find their cultural heritage off limits. (See studies like the Hargreaves Review commissioned by the UK government, empirical comparisons of the availability of copyrighted works and public domain works and economic studies of the effects of copyright (other articles are here and here).)

Yet, incredibly, countries are lengthening their copyright terms—not as a result of reasoned debate, but to comply with trade deals that require harmonization of copyright terms. With harmonization, there is a catch: countries are always made to harmonize with the longer term, never the shorter term, even if the shorter term is a better choice for both economic and policy reasons. At the moment, because of such trade agreements, Canada and New Zealand have both agreed to extend their copyright terms from an already long life-plus-50 to a longer life-plus-70 years, even though the Canadian term extension would “cost Canadian education millions of dollars and would delay works entering the public domain for an entire generation” and the New Zealand extension “would cost around $55m [NZ dollars] annually” without “any compelling evidence that it would provide a public benefit.” 16  This is irrational. It would be more efficient to simply levy a new tax on the public and give the proceeds to the small percentage of copyright holders whose works are still making money after a life-plus-50 term. The term extensions not only transfer wealth to a tiny subset of rights owners, but also threaten to lock away the remaining works from future creators and the public.

What Could Have Been

Works from 1926 are finally entering the public domain, after a 95-year copyright term. However, under the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1965 would be entering the public domain this year. In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1993 might be entering the public domain! Imagine what the great libraries of the world—or just internet hobbyists—could do: digitizing those holdings, making them available for education and research, for pleasure and for creative reuse. Under current copyright terms we will have to wait until 2061.


Want to learn more about the public domain? Here is the legal background on how we got our current copyright terms (including summaries of recent court cases), why the public domain matters, and answers to Frequently Asked Questions. You can also read James Boyle’s book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008)—naturally, you can read the full text of The Public Domain online at no cost and you are free to copy and redistribute it for non-commercial purposes. You can also read “In Ambiguous Battle: The Promise (and Pathos) of Public Domain Day,” an article by Center Director Jennifer Jenkins revealing the promise and the limits of various attempts to reverse the erosion of the public domain, and a short article in the Huffington Post, both referring to a previous Public Domain Day.


1 Only works from 1926 that were published with the authorization of the author are entering the public domain. Copyright law used to treat “published” and “unpublished” works differently. In 2019, published works entered the US public domain for the first time since 1998. However, in the interim, a small subset of works—unpublished works that were not registered with the Copyright Office before 1978—had been entering the public domain after a life plus 70 copyright term, while other unpublished works whose authors died more recently have remained under copyright. In 2022, unpublished works from authors who died in 1951 will go into the public domain. But, because these works were never published, potential users are much less likely to encounter them. In addition, it is difficult to determine whether works were “published” for copyright purposes. Therefore, this site focuses on the thousands of published works that are finally entering the public domain. Please note that unpublished works that were properly registered with the Copyright Office in 1926 are also entering the public domain after a 20 year wait—for those works, copyright was secured on the date of registration.
  The copyright term for older works is different in other countries. In the EU, works from authors who died in 1951—including Mohammad-Taqi Bahar, Jorgen Bentzon, Johanna C.H. “Nelly” Bodenheim, Mikhail Markovich Borodin, James Bridie, Amy Carmichael, John Alden Carpenter, Rafael Altamira Crevea, Dorothy Dix, Eddy Duchin, John Erskine, Max Ettinger, Robert Flaherty, Andre Gide, Cecil Gray ,Maria Grever, René Guénon, Jacinto Guerrero, James Norman Hall, Fumiko Hayashi, William Randolph Hearst, Sadiq Hidajat, Josef Hüttel, Jens Jansen, Robert Kahn, Václav Kálik, Alfrēds Kalniņš, Serge Koussevitzky, Harry Sinclair Lewis, J. C. Leyendecker, Tom MacInnes, Kathleen Lockhart Manning, Resurreccion Maria de Azkue, Nellie McClung, Ivor Novello, Athos Palma, Selim Palmgren, Andrei P. Platonov, Paula von Preradović, Sigmund Romberg, Harold Ross, Artur Schnabel, Arnold Schoenberg, Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, John French Sloan, Raden Mas Noto Soeroto, Rabanindranath Tagore, Vsevolod Vishnevsky, and Ludwig Wittgenstein—will go into the public domain in 2022 after a life-plus-70 year term. In Canada, works of authors who died in 1971—including Diane Arbus, Louis Armstrong, Leah Baird, Josef Berg, Hugo Black, Margaret Bourke-White, Emma Lucy Braun, E. Simms Campbell, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Munier Choudhury, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, King Curtis (stage name of Curtis Ousley), August Derleth, Marcel Dupré, Lloyd Hall, John Marshall Harlan II, Raoul Hausmann, Ub Iwerks, Rockwell Kent, Marian Viktorovich Koval, George Lukács, Guru Prasad Mainali, Jim Morrison, Ogden Nash, Reinhold Niebuhr, Bola de Nieve (stage name of Ignacio Jacinto Villa Fernández), Jalkishan Dayabhal Pancal, Irene Rice Pereira, Ellery Queen (pseud. of Manfred Bonnington), John Charles Walsham Reith, William David Ross, Naoya Shiga, Stevie Smith, Max Steiner, Igor Stravinsky, Shunryu Suzuki, and Bill W. (AA co-founder)—will enter the public domain after a life-plus-50 year term because they have not yet lengthened their term.

2 This estimate comes from experts on early recordings at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections: Tim Brooks, David Seubert and Sam Brylawski, “based in part on an analysis of the pre-1923 contents of the Discography of American Historical Recordings.” Their website on pre-1923 sound recordings is here.

3 See Keeping Copyright in Balance, (February 21, 1998).

4 There are also other creative works entering the public domain, including drawings, paintings, and photography. We have not listed them here because it was more difficult to track down complete copyright information for them.

5 The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act gave works published from 1923 through 1977 a 95-year term. They enter the public domain on January 1 after the conclusion of the 95th year, so as of 2022, works from 1926 and before are in the public domain. Works published through 1977 had to meet certain requirements to be eligible for the 95-year term—they all had to be published with a copyright notice, and works from before 1964 also had to have their copyrights renewed after the initial 28-year term. Foreign works from 1926 were still copyrighted in the US until 2022 if 1) they complied with US notice and renewal formalities, 2) they were published in the US within 30 days of publication abroad, or 3) if neither of these are true, they were still copyrighted in their home country as of 1/1/96.

6 In 2022, the public domain will welcome the first Winnie-the-Pooh book, including the great original illustrations by E. H. Shepard. Not all of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories or films will be in the public domain, just the 1926 book—for later Pooh stories to enter the public domain, you will have to wait a few more years. The 1926 book features the original iterations of Winnie-the-Pooh and some of his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood, including Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Christopher Robin. However, Tigger was not introduced until 1928 in The House at Pooh Corner and that book does not enter the public domain until 2024.

7 Sometimes a composition or song is in the public domain but the sound recording is still copyrighted—even though the song Yes, We Have No Bananas is in the public domain, a later recording of that song could still be copyrighted. You are free to copy, perform, record, or adapt the underlying song, but may need permission to use a specific recording of it. Sound recording rights are more limited than composition rights—you can legally imitate a sound recording, even if your imitation sounds exactly the same, you just cannot copy from the actual recording.

8 A series of lawsuits confirmed that these state laws were of indefinite duration, scope, and validity.

9 Here is the timeline for recordings entering the public domain:
     Recordings first published before 1923 –> January 1, 2022
          [One-year pause in 2023]
     Recordings first published between 1923–1946 –> January 2024–2047 (after a 100-year term)
          [Ten-year pause from 2048–2058]
     Recordings first published between 1947–1956 –> January 2058–2067 (after a 110-year term)
     All remaining recordings first fixed from 1957 until February 15, 1972 –> the term for all of these “shall end on February 15, 2067”
Note that many sites say that sound recordings from 1923 enter the public domain in 2023—adding 100 years to the date of publication—but they actually go into the public domain on January 1 of the subsequent year, so that’s why sound recordings from 1923 are public domain in 2024. In addition, note that the term of protection for sound recordings in other countries is different from the one in the US: in the EU it is 70 years, and elsewhere it is 50 years.

10 Beginning in the 1920s there was also a market-based segregation that took the form of so-called “race records”—subsidiary imprints that isolated Black music from mainstream popular music.

11 To learn more about the unequal treatment of Black artists, you can read the excellent scholarship of Professor Kevin J. Greene, including Copyright, Culture & (and) Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection and “Copynorms,” Black Cultural Production, and the Debate over African-American Reparations; Professor Olufunmilayo Arewa, including From J.C. Bach to Hip Hop: Musical Borrowing, Copyright and Cultural ContextBlues Lives: Promise and Perils of Musical Copyright and Writing Rights: Copyright’s Visual Bias and African American Music; and Professor Lateef Mtima, including Intellectual Property, Entrepreneurship and Social Justice: From Swords to Ploughshares.

12 Another famous Buster Keaton film from 1926, The General, is not on this list because its copyright apparently was not renewed after the first 28-year term, meaning it entered the public domain in 1954.

13 Many silent films were intentionally destroyed by the studios because they no longer had apparent value. Other older films have disintegrated while preservationists waited for them to enter the public domain, so that they could legally digitize them. (There is a narrow provision allowing some restorations, but it is extremely limited.) The Librarian of Congress estimates that more than 80% of films from the 1920s has already decayed beyond repair. Endangered film footage includes not only studio productions, but also works of historical value, such as newsreels, anthropological and regional films, rare footage documenting daily life for ethnic minorities, and advertising and corporate shorts. (For more information see here.) Like old films, old sound recordings also deteriorate. This makes their entry into the public domain an extra cause for celebration because it will allow anyone to preserve them.

14 See Wheeler Winston Dixon, “The Three Film Versions of The Great Gatsby: A Vision Deferred,” Literature Film Quarterly (2003). Sadly, however, one of the filmic versions of the novel has been lost to us forever; and in many respects, it seems that this first version, made in 1926, might have been the most authentic adaptation the novel received.

15 Millions of books published from 1926–1963 are actually in the public domain because the copyright owners did not renew the rights. Efforts have been underway to unlock this “secret” public domain, but compiling a definitive list of those titles is a daunting task. The relevant registration and renewal information is in the 450,000-page Catalog of Copyright Entries (“CCE”). Currently there is no way to reliably search the entire CCE, but thankfully, the New York Public Library is in the midst of converting the CCE into a machine-searchable format. Even after this is complete, however, confirming that works without apparent renewals are in the public domain involves additional complexities. As of September 2019, the HathiTrust Copyright Review Program had completed this process with 506,989 US publications, and determined that 302,915 (59.7%) are in the public domain, and can therefore be made available online. The work of the New York Public Library, HathiTrust, and other groups continues, with the goal of opening these public domain books to the public.

16 These quotes are from Professor Michael Geist and Michael Wolfe, respectively. At the time of writing, the Canadian term extension is poised to go forward as part of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement unless it gets stopped by an unrelated trade dispute. New Zealand’s term extension is a concession to the UK in a newer trade agreement.


Written by Jennifer Jenkins. Special thanks to our tireless and talented research maven and website guru Balfour Smith for building this site and compiling the list of works from 1926.

Creative Commons License Public Domain Day 2022 by Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Article source: Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Duke University

Public Domain Day, 2021: Works from 1925 are in the Public Domain!

Every year, on January 1st, previously copywritten works enter the public domain and are free for all of us.

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School does an amazing job of bringing awareness to the importance of the public domain Every year, they write a post highlighting the works entering the public domain. This post celebrates the works of 1925.

January 1, 2021 is Public Domain Day: Works from 1925 are open to all!

By Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain

Montage of 1925 Works

On January 1, 2021, copyrighted works from 1925 will enter the US public domain,1 where they will be free for all to use and build upon. These works include books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, and Franz Kafka’s The Trial (in the original German), silent films featuring Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, and music ranging from the jazz standard Sweet Georgia Brown to songs by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, W.C. Handy, and Fats Waller.

This is not just the famous last line from The Great Gatsby. It also encapsulates what the public domain is all about. A culture is a continuing conversation between present and past. On Public Domain Day, we all have a “green light,” in keeping with the Gatsby theme, to use one more year of that rich cultural past, without permission or fee.

Works from 1925 were supposed to go into the public domain in 2001, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years.2 Now the wait is over.

In 2021, there is a lot to celebrate. 1925 brought us some incredible culture. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. The New Yorker magazine was founded. The literature reflected both a booming economy, whose fruits were unevenly distributed, and the lingering upheaval and tragedy of World War I. The culture of the time reflected all of those contradictory tendencies. The BBC’s Culture website suggested that 1925 might be “the greatest year for books ever,” and with good reason. It is not simply the vast array of famous titles. The stylistic innovations produced by books such as Gatsby, or The Trial, or Mrs. Dalloway marked a change in both the tone and the substance of our literary culture, a broadening of the range of possibilities available to writers, while characters such as Jay Gatsby, Hemingway’s Nick Adams, and Clarissa Dalloway still resonate today.

How will people celebrate this trove of cultural material? The Internet Archive will add books, movies, music, and more to its online library. HathiTrust will make tens of thousands of titles from 1925 available in its digital repository. Google Books will offer the full text of books from that year, instead of showing only snippet views or authorized previews. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can afford to publicly perform, or rearrange, the music. Educators and historians can share the full cultural record. Creators can legally build on the past—reimagining the books, making them into films, adapting the songs.

Here are some of the works that will be entering the public domain in 2021. (To find more material from 1925, you can visit the Catalogue of Copyright Entries.)

 

Books

'On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs' by Dorothy Scarborough book cover
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  • Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time
  • Franz Kafka, The Trial (in German)
  • Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
  • John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
  • Alain Locke, The New Negro (collecting works from writers including W.E.B. du Bois, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Eric Walrond)
  • Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith
  • Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys
  • Aldous Huxley, Those Barren Leaves
  • W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
  • Dorothy Scarborough, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs
  • Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction
  • Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, A Daughter of the Samurai

Films3

'The Unholy Three' movie poster
  • Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman
  • The Merry Widow
  • Stella Dallas
  • Buster Keaton’s Go West
  • His People
  • Lovers in Quarantine
  • Pretty Ladies
  • The Unholy Three

 

(Yes, there was a film called Lovers in Quarantine, though it was a comedy, and they only had to quarantine for a week.)

 

Music

Sidney Bechet
  • Always, by Irving Berlin
  • Sweet Georgia Brown, by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard & Kenneth Casey
  • Works by Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” including Army Camp Harmony Blues (with Hooks Tilford) and Shave ’Em Dry (with William Jackson)
  • Looking for a Boy, by George & Ira Gershwin (from the musical Tip-Toes)
  • Manhattan, by Lorenz Hart & Richard Rodgers
  • Ukulele Lady, by Gus Kahn & Richard Whiting
  • Yes Sir, That’s My Baby, by Gus Kahn & Walter Donaldson
  • Works by ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton, including Shreveport Stomps and Milenberg Joys (with Paul Mares, Walter Melrose, & Leon Roppolo)
  • Works by W.C. Handy, including Friendless Blues (with Mercedes Gilbert), Bright Star of Hope (with Lillian A. Thorsten), and When the Black Man Has a Nation of His Own (with J.M. Miller)
  • Works by Duke Ellington, including Jig Walk and With You (both with Joseph “Jo” Trent)
  • Works by ‘Fats’ Waller, including Anybody Here Want To Try My Cabbage (with Andrea “Andy” Razaf), Ball and Chain Blues (with Andrea “Andy” Razaf), and Campmeetin’ Stomp
  • Works by Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” including Dixie Flyer BluesTired of Voting Blues, and Telephone Blues
  • Works by Lovie Austin, including Back Biting Woman’s BluesSouthern Woman’s Blues, and Tennessee Blues
  • Works by Sidney Bechet, including Waltz of Love (with Spencer Williams), Naggin’ at Me (with Rousseau Simmons), and Dreams of To-morrow (with Rousseau Simmons)
  • Works by Fletcher Henderson, including Screaming the Blues (with Fay Barnes)
  • Works by Sippie Wallace, including Can Anybody Take Sweet Mama’s Place (with Clarence Williams)
  • Works by Mrs. H.H.A. (Amy) Beach, including Lord of the Worlds Above, Op. 109 (words by Isaac Watts, 1674–1748), The Greenwood, Op. 110 (words by William Lisle Bowles, 1762–1850), The Singer, Op. 117 (words by Muna Lee, 1895–1965), and Song in the Hills, Op. 117, No. 3 (words by Muna Lee, 1895–1965)

Note that only the musical compositions referred to above are entering the public domain. Subsequent arrangements, orchestrations, or recordings of those compositions, such as the recording of Sweet Georgia Brown by The Beatles and Tony Sheridan, might still be copyrighted. You are free to copy, perform, record, or adapt the composition, but may need permission to use a specific recording of it.4

We have featured some influential Black artists on this list because they deserve particular recognition. While it is worth celebrating the entry of their works into the public domain, it is also necessary to realize that not all artists were able to benefit from the copyright system during the copyright term. It would be impossible to overstate the contribution of Black musicians to American music. Yet these artists were routinely excluded from the copyright system, either because of racist business-practices, legal formalities that disproportionately affected minority musicians, or unequal access to the tools of the law themselves. Many never received credit or compensation for their songs. The artists above were unusual in that they actually had works attributed to them, rather than being simply stolen—evidence of their remarkable ingenuity in the face of a colossally unfair system. But the fact that they received credit does not mean that they were fairly compensated for their work. Discrimination, segregation, lopsided contracts, and an exclusionary music business deprived many of these musicians—Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, and others—of the full payment their work so richly deserved.5

Why celebrate the public domain? Rediscovering the past, nurturing the future

A wellspring for future creativity. The goal of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so. Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution. But it also ensures that those rights last for a “limited time,” so that when they expire, works can go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations. As explained by the Supreme Court:

[Copyright] is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of special reward, and to allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited period of exclusive control has expired.” Sony v. Universal (1984).

In 2021, anyone can use these works as raw material for their own creations, without fear of a lawsuit. What kinds of things will people do with public domain works? In 2020, jazz composers and arrangers David Berger and Chuck Israels released The Public Domain Song Anthology. As described in the book’s announcement, it collects 348 songs that can be “studied, performed, adapted, and shared without constraint.” Better yet, “contributions by Berger and Israels have been gifted to the public domain as well, which will help to both preserve and give new life to the rich legacy of these songs—many of which are at risk of being forgotten or overlooked.” For a preview of the songs entering the public domain in 1925, listen to the excellent Bob Schwartz quartet preform a medley of songs from 1925. Bravo! Other reuses inspired by the public domain include Techdirt’s annual public domain game jam that invites designers to create games based on newly public domain works, and the Internet Archive’s contest for the best short films using works set to enter the public domain.

The Great(er) Gatsby? After 95 years of exclusivity, The Great Gatsby is now entering the public domain, where it will be freely available to the next Fitzgerald…. What might future creators do with The Great Gatsby? They could make it into a film, or opera, or musical. Importantly, they could do so even if they did not have the financial resources that were required to license the book for the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Baz Luhrmann. For future filmmakers The Great Gatsby will be as free as…. Romeo and Juliet. But the public domain does not just bring financial freedom, it also provides cultural leeway. Someone could reimagine the story with a more inclusive cast, or set in a different era. They could reinterpret it, tell it from the perspective of Myrtle or Jordan, or make prequels and sequels. In fact, novelist Michael Farris Smith is slated to release Nick, a Gatsby prequel telling the story of Nick Carraway’s life before he moves to West Egg, on January 5, 2021. As explained in a New York Times editorial:

When a work enters the public domain it means the public can afford to use it freely, to give it new currency… [public domain works] are an essential part of every artist’s sustenance, of every person’s sustenance.6

Looking toward the book’s entry into the public domain, Blake Hazard, Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter, was reflective: “We’re just very grateful to have had it under copyright, not just for the rather obvious benefits, but to try and safeguard the text, to guide certain projects and try to avoid unfortunate ones. We’re now looking to a new period and trying to view it with enthusiasm, knowing some exciting things may come.” Just as Shakespeare’s works have given us everything from 10 Things I Hate About You and Kiss Me Kate (from The Taming of the Shrew) to West Side Story (from Romeo and Juliet), who knows what The Great Gatsby might inspire? As with Shakespeare, the ability to freely reimagine the iconic works from 1925 may spur a range of creativity, from the serious to the whimsical, and in doing so allow the authors’ legacies to endure.

Access to our cultural heritage

The public domain also enables access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history. 1925 was a long time ago. The vast majority of works from 1925 are out of circulation. When they enter the public domain in 2021, anyone can make them available online, where we can discover, enjoy, and breathe new life into them. (Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see herehere, and here.) The works listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more forgotten works are waiting to be rediscovered.

Unfortunately, the fact that works from 1925 are legally available does not mean they are actually available. After 95 years, many of these works are already lost or literally disintegrating (as with old films7 and recordings), evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. For example, sequences that were shot in two-tone Technicolor from two of the films above, The Merry Widow and Pretty Ladies, are apparently lost. For the material that has survived, however, the long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate.

The invisible public domain

Many of the works featured above are famous; that is why we included them. Their copyright holders benefitted from 20 more years of copyright because the works had enduring popularity, and were still earning royalties. But when Congress extended the copyright term for works like The Great Gatsby, it also did so for all of the works whose commercial viability had long ended. For the vast majority—probably 99%—of works from 1925, no copyright holder financially benefited from continued copyright. Yet they remained off limits, for no good reason. (A Congressional Research Service report indicated that only around 2% of copyrights between 55 and 75 years old retain commercial value. After 75 years, that percentage is even lower. Most older works are “orphan works,” where the copyright owner cannot be found at all.)

The story of Hitler’s copyright

There were also some truly odious works from 1925, most notably Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which was actually the subject of a fascinating copyright story. A young reporter named Alan Cranston, who later became a United States Senator, had read the German-language version of the book, and was surprised to see a bowdlerized translation of it circulating in the US. This English-language version had removed some of the most hateful and terrifying parts of the book, including Hitler’s plan for Nazi domination. So, in Cranston’s words, he prepared a “Reader’s Digest-like version (showing) the worst of Hitler” that included “every important point, every important idea Hitler presented,” but “eliminated his long-winded digressions, and cut out much of the endless repetition,” and added annotations showing Hitler’s “propaganda and distortions.” Cranston pledged no royalties to Hitler, and promised that any profits would go to help refugees from Hitler’s Reich. The unauthorized translation was 10 cents, and sold a half million copies in 10 days. It was 1939.

While Cranston had exposed Hitler’s evil, his unauthorized translation had also undercut the market for the authorized and sanitized version. He was sued for copyright infringement, and lost in court. “No damages were assessed, but we had to stop selling the book,” Cranston remembered. “But we did wake up a lot of Americans to the Nazi threat.”

More Works!

Technically, many works from 1925 may already be in the public domain because the copyright owners did not comply with the “formalities” that used to be necessary for copyright protection.8 Back then, your work went into the public domain if you did not include a copyright notice—e.g. “Copyright 1925 Virginia Woolf”—when publishing it, or if you did not renew the copyright after 28 years. Current copyright law no longer has these requirements. But, even though those works might technically be in the public domain, as a practical matter the public often has to assume they’re still copyrighted (or risk a lawsuit) because the relevant copyright information is difficult to find—older records can be fragmentary, confused, or lost. That’s why Public Domain Day is so significant. On January 1, 2021, the public will know that works published in 1925 are free for use without tedious or inconclusive research.

In an abundance of caution, our lists above primarily include works where we were able to track down the renewal data suggesting that they are still in-copyright through the end of 2020, and affirmatively entering the public domain in 2021. However, there were many exciting works from 1925 for which we could not locate renewals. They will also be in the public domain in 2021, but may have entered the public domain decades ago due to lack of renewal.

Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer performing at UCLA in 1960

Some authors choose to dedicate their works to the public domain before the end of the copyright term. In 2020, musician (and mathematician) Tom Lehrer, who became famous for his satirical songs in the 1950s and 1960s, put all of his lyrics and original compositions into the public domain. You can find them here. (Artists who wish to put their work in the public domain can do so using Creative Commons’ CC0 tool.)

Montage of works from 1964What Could Have Been

Works from 1925 are finally entering the public domain, after a 95-year copyright term. However, under the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1964 would be entering the public domain this year. They range from the films Goldfinger and Mary Poppins, to the children’s classics The Giving TreeHarriett the Spy, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to The Rolling Stones’ debut album and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, and much more. Have a look at some of the others. In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1992 might be entering the public domain! Imagine what the great libraries of the world—or just internet hobbyists—could do: digitizing those holdings, making them available for education and research, for pleasure and for creative reuse.

It's a Wonderful Public DomainIt’s a Wonderful Public Domain. . . .

What happens when works enter the public domain? Sometimes, wonderful things. The 1947 film It’s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain in 1975 because its copyright was not properly renewed after the first 28-year term. The film had been a flop on release, but thanks to its public domain status, it became a holiday classic. Why? Because TV networks were free to show it over and over again during the holidays, making the film immensely popular. But then copyright law reentered the picture. . . . In 1993, the film’s original copyright holder, capitalizing on a recent Supreme Court case, reasserted copyright based on its ownership of the film’s musical score and the short story on which the film was based (the film itself is still in the public domain). Ironically, a film that only became a success because of its public domain status was pulled back into copyright.

Want to learn more about the public domain? Here is the legal background on how we got our current copyright terms (including summaries of recent court cases), why the public domain matters, and answers to Frequently Asked Questions. You can also read James Boyle’s book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008)—naturally, you can read the full text of The Public Domain online at no cost and you are free to copy and redistribute it for non-commercial purposes. You can also read “In Ambiguous Battle: The Promise (and Pathos) of Public Domain Day,” an article by Center Director Jennifer Jenkins revealing the promise and the limits of various attempts to reverse the erosion of the public domain, and a short article in the Huffington Post celebrating a previous Public Domain Day.


1 In 2019, published works entered the US public domain for the first time since 1998. However, in the interim, a small subset of works—unpublished works that were not registered with the Copyright Office before 1978—had been entering the public domain after a life plus 70 copyright term. In 2021, unpublished works from authors who died in 1950 will go into the public domain. But, because these works were never published, potential users are much less likely to encounter them. In addition, it is difficult to determine whether works were “published” for copyright purposes. Therefore, this site focuses on the thousands of published works that are finally entering the public domain. Please note that unpublished works that were properly registered with the Copyright Office in 1925 are also entering the public domain after a 20 year wait—for those works, copyright was secured on the date of registration.
The copyright term for older works is different in other countries. In the EU, works from authors who died in 1950—including George Orwell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and George Bernard Shaw—will go into the public domain in 2021 after a life plus 70 year term. In Canada, works of authors who died in 1970—including E.M. Forster, Rube Goldberg, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin—will enter the public domain after a life plus 50 year term.

2 The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act gave works published from 1923 through 1977 a 95-year term. They enter the public domain on January 1 after the conclusion of the 95th year, so as of 2021, works from 1925 and before are in the public domain. Works published through 1977 had to meet certain requirements to be eligible for the 95-year term—they all had to be published with a copyright notice, and works from before 1964 also had to have their copyrights renewed after the initial 28-year term. Foreign works from 1925 are still copyrighted in the US until 2021 if 1) they complied with US notice and renewal formalities, 2) they were published in the US within 30 days of publication abroad, or 3) if neither of these are true, they were still copyrighted in their home country as of 1/1/96.

3 Film buffs may notice that some well-known films from 1925—including The Lost World and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush—are not on this list. This is because their copyrights were not renewed after the first 28-year term.

4 The list of public domain music refers to the “musical composition”—the underlying music and lyrics—not the sound recordings of those compositions. Federal copyright did not used to cover sound recordings from before 1972 (though pre-1972 sound recordings were protected under some states’ laws). However, a new law from 2018 called the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) has federalized copyright for pre-1972 sound recordings, in order to clear up the confusing patchwork of state law protection. Recordings from 1925 will enter the public domain in 2026. Importantly however, unlike the rest of copyright law, the MMA allows for uses of orphan works: if those older recordings are not being commercially exploited, there is a process for lawfully engaging in noncommercial uses. For more information about this law, please see the Copyright Office’s summary. While musical compositions are still copyrighted, there is a “compulsory license” that allows people to make recordings if they pay a standard royalty and comply with the license terms. However, this compulsory license doesn’t cover printing sheet music, making public performances, synchronizing audio with video, or making “derivative works.” And, of course, it requires payment. Public domain compositions can be freely recorded.

5 To learn more about the unequal treatment of Black artists, you can read the excellent scholarship of Professor Kevin J. Greene, including Copyright, Culture & (and) Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection and “Copynorms,” Black Cultural Production, and the Debate over African-American Reparations; Professor Olufunmilayo Arewa, including From J.C. Bach to Hip Hop: Musical Borrowing, Copyright and Cultural ContextBlues Lives: Promise and Perils of Musical Copyright and Writing Rights: Copyright’s Visual Bias and African American Music; and Professor Lateef Mtima, including Intellectual Property, Entrepreneurship and Social Justice: From Swords to Ploughshares.

6 See Keeping Copyright in Balance, (February 21, 1998).

7 Many silent films were intentionally destroyed by the studios because they no longer had apparent value. Other older films have disintegrated while preservationists waited for them to enter the public domain, so that they could legally digitize them. (There is a narrow provision allowing some restorations, but it is extremely limited.) The Librarian of Congress estimates that more than 80% of films from the 1920s has already decayed beyond repair. Endangered film footage includes not only studio productions, but also works of historical value, such as newsreels, anthropological and regional films, rare footage documenting daily life for ethnic minorities, and advertising and corporate shorts. (For more information see here.)

8 Millions of books published from 1925–1963 are actually in the public domain because the copyright owners did not renew the rights. Efforts have been underway to unlock this “secret” public domain, but compiling a definitive list of those titles is a daunting task. The relevant registration and renewal information is in the 450,000-page Catalog of Copyright Entries (“CCE”). Currently there is no way to reliably search the entire CCE, but thankfully, the New York Public Library is in the midst of converting the CCE into a machine-searchable format. Even after this is complete, however, confirming that works without apparent renewals are in the public domain involves additional complexities. As of September 2019, the HathiTrust Copyright Review Program had completed this process with 506,989 US publications, and determined that 302,915 (59.7%) are in the public domain, and can therefore be made available online. The work of the New York Public Library, HathiTrust, and other groups continues, with the goal of opening these public domain books to the public.


Written by Jennifer Jenkins. Special thanks to our tireless and talented research maven and website guru Balfour Smith for building this site and compiling the list of works from 1925.

Creative Commons License Public Domain Day 2021 by Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Public Domain Day 2019

For the last few years, I have written posts on January 1st talking about art, books, films and music that would have entered the public domain if those copyright terms had not been extended. Mainly due a corporation trying to protect the rights to a cartoon mouse, for an entire generation in the United States, no new material has fallen into the public domain. The fact that new material is FINALLY entering the public domain this year is a big deal and from here on out, every year, new works will fall into the public domain on a yearly basis.

The Public Domain belongs to the the people. The works contained within it are a part of our history and culture. When works fall into the public domain, many of these works suddenly reappear or are transformed into new art forms. So dig in; let’s see what’s in there, shall we? This is truly something to celebrate.

From Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain:

January 1, 2019 is (finally) Public Domain Day: Works from 1923 are open to all!

For the first time in over 20 years, on January 1, 2019, published works will enter the US public domain.1 Works from 1923 will be free for all to use and build upon, without permission or fee. They include dramatic films such as The Ten Commandments, and comedies featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. There are literary works by Robert Frost, Aldous Huxley, and Edith Wharton, the “Charleston” song, and more. And remember, this has not happened for over 20 years. Why? Works from 1923 were set to go into the public domain in 1999, after a 75-year copyright term. But in 1998 Congress hit a two-decade pause button and extended their copyright term for 20 years, giving works published between 1923 and 1977 an expanded term of 95 years.2

But now the drought is over. How will people celebrate this trove of cultural material? Google Books will offer the full text of books from that year, instead of showing only snippet views or authorized previews. The Internet Archive will add books, movies, music, and more to its online library. Community theaters are planning screenings of the films. Students will be free to adapt and publicly perform the music. Because these works are in the public domain, anyone can make them available, where you can rediscover and enjoy them. (Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see herehere, and here.) In addition, the expiration of copyright means that you’re free to use these materials, for education, for research, or for creative endeavors—whether it’s translating the books, making your own versions of the films, or building new music based on old classics.

Here are some of the works that will be entering the public domain in 2019. A fuller (but still partial) listing of over a thousand works that we have researched can be found here.

Films

  • Safety Last!, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, featuring Harold Lloyd
  • The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille
  • The Pilgrim, directed by Charlie Chaplin
  • Our Hospitality, directed by Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone
  • The Covered Wagon, directed by James Cruze
  • Scaramouche, directed by Rex Ingram

Books

  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Golden Lion
  • Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links
  • Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis
  • e.e. cummings, Tulips and Chimneys
  • Robert Frost, New Hampshire
  • Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
  • Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay
  • D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo
  • Bertrand and Dora Russell, The Prospects of Industrial Civilization
  • Carl Sandberg, Rootabaga Pigeons
  • Edith Wharton, A Son at the Front
  • P.G. Wodehouse, works including The Inimitable Jeeves and Leave it to Psmith
  • Viginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room

Music

  • Yes! We Have No Bananas, w.&m. Frank Silver & Irving Cohn
  • Charleston, w.&m. Cecil Mack & James P. Johnson
  • London Calling! (musical), by Noel Coward
  • Who’s Sorry Now, w. Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby, m. Ted Snyder
  • Songs by “Jelly Roll” Morton including Grandpa’s SpellsThe Pearls, and Wolverine Blues (w. Benjamin F. Spikes & John C. Spikes; m. Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton)
  • Works by Bela Bartok including the Violin Sonata No. 1 and the Violin Sonata No. 2
  • Tin Roof Blues, m. Leon Roppolo, Paul Mares, George Brunies, Mel Stitzel, & Benny Pollack
(There were also compositions from 1923 by other well-known artists including Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, WC Handy, Oscar Hammerstein, Gustav Holst, Al Jolson, Jerome Kern, and John Phillip Sousa; though their most famous works were from other years.)

Of course, 1923 was a long time ago. (Under the 56-year copyright term that existed until 1978, we could be seeing works from 1962 enter the public domain in 2019.) Unfortunately, the fact that works from 1923 are legally available does not mean they are actually available. Many of these works are lost entirely or literally disintegrating (as with old films and recordings), evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. For the works that have survived, however, their long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate.

Technically, many works from 1923 may already have entered the public domain decades ago because the copyright owners did not comply with the “formalities” that used to be necessary for copyright protection. Back then, your work went into the public domain if you did not include a copyright notice—e.g. “Copyright 1923 Charlie Chaplin”—when publishing it, or if you did not renew the copyright after 28 years. Current copyright law no longer has these requirements. But, even though those works might technically be in the public domain, as a practical matter the public often has to assume they’re still copyrighted (or risk a lawsuit) because the relevant copyright information is difficult or impossible to find—older records can be fragmentary, confused, or lost. That’s why January 1, 2019 is so significant. On that date, the public will know that works published in 1923 are free for public use without tedious or inconclusive research.

For example, in 2019, we will know that Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is in the public domain because copyright over the collection containing the poem, New Hampshire, will lapse. (It’s possible that the poem might have entered the public domain earlier because it was first published in a magazine and that earlier copyright was not renewed on time—see discussion thread here—but we can be confident that its copyright has expired in 2019.) Frost’s estate has used copyright law to strictly control uses of his works. Eric Whitacre, who composed the incredible Virtual Choir works, discovered this the hard way when he wrote a piece in memory of a couple who had died within weeks of each other after being married over fifty years. The piece was commissioned by the couple’s daughter, whose favorite poem was “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Whitacre wrote a choral work based on the poem, and it was so well-received that other conductors began asking him for the work. He writes:

After a LONG legal battle (many letters, many representatives), the estate of Robert Frost and their publisher, Henry Holt Inc., sternly and formally forbid me from using the poem for publication or performance… I was crushed. The piece was dead, and would sit under my bed for the next 37 years because of some ridiculous ruling by heirs and lawyers.

(Eventually he asked the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri to write new words for the music that had been set to Frost’s poem, you can see the Virtual Choir performance of that composition here and read his full story here; note that Frost’s lawyers were mistaken about when the copyright ends, as indicated above, it lapses in 2019, if it hasn’t already.) Beginning in 2019, the next Whitacre won’t face this frustration, and anyone may use this powerful poem in their own creations.

Note that copyright law has a way of introducing complexities into any analysis. There are some familiar works that appear to be from 1923, but are not in fact entering the public domain in 2019 because of publication details. One is Felix Salten’s Bambi, A Life in the Woods, the basis for Disney’s famous movie. Salten first published it in Germany without a copyright notice in 1923, then republished it with a compliant copyright notice in 1926. When Disney (of all companies) claimed that Bambi was in the public domain, a court disagreed, holding that because the initial 1923 publication was in Germany, the failure to include a copyright notice did not put the book into the US public domain. The 1926 publication was valid, so the book’s copyright expires after 95 years in 2022.3 (The court’s full opinion is here.) Also, while the copyrights in several Jelly Roll Morton songs lapse in 2019, his famous “King Porter Stomp” was not copyrighted until 1924 (even though it was recorded in 1923), so it is not entering the public domain until 2020.

In an abundance of caution, our list above only includes works where we were actually able to track down the notice and renewal data suggesting that they are indeed still in-copyright until 2019. We’ve also compiled—to the best of our research capabilities—a fuller spreadsheet showing other renewed works from 1923. You can find it here. But we want to emphasize that this is only a partial collection; many more works are entering the public domain as well, but we could not find the legal minutia to confirm their copyright status.

It’s a Wonderful Public Domain. . . . What happens when works enter the public domain? Sometimes, wonderful things. The 1947 film It’s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain in 1975 because its copyright was not properly renewed after the first 28-year term. The film had been a flop on release, but thanks to its public domain status, it became a holiday classic. Why? Because TV networks were free to show it over and over again during the holidays, making the film immensely popular. But then copyright law reentered the picture. . . . In 1993, the film’s original copyright holder, capitalizing on a recent Supreme Court case, reasserted copyright based on its ownership of the film’s musical score and the short story on which the film was based (the film itself is still in the public domain). Ironically, a film that only became a success because of its public domain status was pulled back into copyright.

What Could Have Been

Works from 1923 are finally entering the public domain, after a 95-year copyright term. However, under the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1962 would be entering the public domain this year. They range from the books A Wrinkle in Time and The Guns of August, to the film Lawrence of Arabia and the song Blowin’ in the Wind, and much more. Have a look at some of the others. In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1990 might be entering the public domain! Imagine what the great libraries of the world—or just internet hobbyists—could do: digitizing those holdings, making them available for education and research, for pleasure and for creative reuse.

Want to learn more about the public domain? Here is the legal background on how we got our current copyright terms (including summaries of recent court cases), why the public domain matters, and answers to Frequently Asked Questions. You can also read James Boyle’s book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008)—naturally, you can read the full text of The Public Domain online at no cost and you are free to copy and redistribute it for non-commercial purposes. You can also read “In Ambiguous Battle: The Promise (and Pathos) of Public Domain Day,” an article by Center Director Jennifer Jenkins revealing the promise and the limits of various attempts to reverse the erosion of the public domain, and a short article in the Huffington Post celebrating a previous Public Domain Day.


1 No published works have entered our public domain since 1998. However, a small subset of works—unpublished works that were not registered with the Copyright Office before 1978—have been entering the public domain after a life plus 70 copyright term. But, because these works were never published, potential users are much less likely to encounter them. In addition, it is difficult to determine whether works were “published” for copyright purposes. Therefore, this site focuses on the thousands of published works that are finally entering the public domain.

2 Works published between 1923 and 1977 had to meet certain requirements to be eligible for the 95-year term—they all had to be published with a copyright notice, and works from 1923–1963 also had to have their copyrights renewed after the initial 28-year term.

3 Foreign works from 1923 are still copyrighted in the US until 2019 if 1) they complied with US notice and renewal formalities, 2) they were published in the US within 30 days of publication abroad, or 3) if neither of these are true, they were still copyrighted in their home country as of 1/1/96. Note that the copyright term for older works is different in other countries: in the EU, works from authors who died in 1948 will go into the public domain in 2019 after a life plus 70 year term, and in Canada, works of authors who died in 1968 will enter the public domain after a life plus 50 year term.


Special thanks to our tireless and talented research maven and website guru Balfour Smith for building this site and compiling the list of works from 1923.

Ebook Evangelist’s note: This article reprinted from Public Domain Day 2019 by Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain. This article licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

For Digital First Sale, It’s Still 2001

Great post on this topic! This is why, unfortunately, I can’t foresee a used ebook or music market evolving.

Copyright and Technology

Seventeen years ago, the U.S. Copyright Office — Congress’s official advisor on copyright issues — published an opinion for Congress on whether there should be a first sale right for digital content: a right for consumers to alienate (sell, lend, rent, or give away) digital files, like the one that exists for physical items like books, CDs, and DVDs. In the so-called Section 104 Report, the Copyright Office considered the idea that digital first sale could be supported with a “forward-and-delete” mechanism that ensures that if you send a digital file to someone, the file no longer exists on your device.

The Copyright Office said:

… unless a ‘forward-and-delete’ technology is employed, transfer of a copy by transmission requires an additional affirmative act by the sender. In applying a digital first sale doctrine as a defense to infringement it would be difficult to prove or disprove whether that act had…

View original post 1,296 more words

Public Domain Day 2018

Because of extensions to the term of copyright law, here in the United States, nothing new has entered the public domain for the last twenty years.  Every year on January first, The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University  writes a post on what would have entered the public domain on this day before copyright law was extended to its current terms. Here are some of the highlights from the post:

Current US law extends copyright for 70 years after the date of the author’s death, and corporate “works-for-hire” are copyrighted for 95 years after publication. But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years—an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. Under those laws, works published in 1961 would enter the public domain on January 1, 2018, where they would be “free as the air to common use.” Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2057.1 And no published works will enter our public domain until 2019. The laws in other countries are different—thousands of works are entering the public domain in Canada and the EU on January 1.

Books:

What books would be entering the public domain if we had the pre-1978 copyright laws? You might recognize some of the titles below.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster book cover
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22
  • Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
  • J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
  • John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
  • Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy
  • Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
  • William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine
  • Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach
Films:

Consider the films from 1961 that would have become available this year. You could share clips with friends or incorporate them into fan fiction. Community theaters could show the full features. Libraries and archivists would be free to digitize and preserve them. Here are a few of the movies that we won’t see in the public domain for another 39 years.

Judgment at Nuremberg movie poster
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • West Side Story
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • A Raisin in the Sun
  • The Parent Trap
  • Splendor in the Grass
  • Judgment at Nuremberg
  • The Misfits
  • The Hustler
Music: 

What 1961 music could you have used without fear of a lawsuit? If you wanted to find guitar tabs or sheet music and freely use some of the influential music from 1961, January 1 2018 would have been a rocking day for you under earlier copyright laws. Patsy Cline’s classic Crazy (Willie Nelson) would be available. So would Stand By Me (Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller), Runaway (Del Shannon, Max Crook), and Let’s Twist Again (Kal Mann, Dave Appell). You could publicly perform or set short films to Surfin’ (Brian Wilson, Mike Love) or Crying (Roy Orbison, Joe Melson), all without permission or fee. Today these musical works remain copyrighted until 2057.4

Like West Side Story, some of the hit songs from 1961 borrowed from earlier works. Elvis Presley’s Surrender (Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman) was adapted from the 1902 Neapolitan ballad “Torna a Surriento” (Ernesto and Giambattista de Curtis), and his Can’t Help Falling in Love (Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss) is derived from the 1784 French song “Plaisir d’amour” (Jean-Paul-Égide Martini).

The current copyright law also affects the status and availability of works of art and scientific research.

You can read the entire article here. Please also take a moment to read some of the articles on the Center’s site which explain the importance of the public domain, how it is shrinking due to copyright laws and why that matters.

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain

What Could Have Entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2017?

Reposted from Duke University website for the Center for the Study of the Public Domain:      

Works that could have entered the public domain on January 1, 2017

Under the law that existed until 1978 . . . Works from 1960

The books To Kill a Mockingbird and Rabbit, Run, the films The Magnificent Seven and The Time Machine, and more. . .

Current US law extends copyright for 70 years after the date of the author’s death, and corporate “works-for-hire” are copyrighted for 95 years after publication. But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years—an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. Under those laws, works published in 1960 would enter the public domain on January 1, 2017, where they would be “free as the air to common use.” Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2056.1 And no published works will enter our public domain until 2019. The laws in other countries are different—thousands of works are entering the public domain in Canada and the EU on January 1.

Born Free

What books would be entering the public domain if we had the pre-1978 copyright laws? You might recognize some of the titles below.

  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • John Updike, Rabbit, Run
  • Joy Adamson, Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds
  • William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
  • Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty
  • Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties
  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Upheaval: The Age of Roosevelt
  • Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish
  • Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique
The books above are but a fraction of what would be entering the public domain on January 1. Imagine them being freely available to students and teachers around the world. Readers interested in iconic stories of courage in the face of racial injustice, or middle class America in the late 1950s, or just great literature, would have something to celebrate. In the current political climate, Shirer’s work, and also those of Hayek, Bell, and Schlesinger, might provide food for thought. And Dr. Seuss’s beloved books would be legally available for free online for children (of all ages).

You would be free to use these books in your own stories, adapt them for theater, animate them, or make them into a film. You could translate them into other languages, or create accessible Braille or audio versions.2 You could read them online or buy cheaper print editions, because others were free to republish them. Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see here, here, and here. Take, for example, The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater—like the works listed above, it was published in 1960; but unlike those works, it’s in the public domain because the copyright was not renewed. You can legally download it for free, and the purchase price for an eBook is $0.99, instead of $10 or $20.

Imagine a digital Library of Alexandria containing all of the world’s books from 1960 and earlier, where, thanks to technology, you can search, link, annotate, copy and paste. (Google Books has brought us closer to this reality, but for copyrighted books where there is no separate agreement with the copyright holder, it only shows three short snippets, not the whole book.) Instead of seeing these literary works enter the public domain in 2017, we will have to wait until 2056.

The Frozen-in-Time Machine

Consider the films and television shows from 1960 that would have become available this year. Fans could share clips with friends or incorporate them into homages. Local theaters could show the full features. Libraries and archivists would be free to digitize and preserve them. Here are a few of the movies that we won’t see in the public domain for another 39 years.

  • The Time Machine
  • Psycho
  • Spartacus
  • Exodus
  • The Apartment
  • Inherit the Wind
  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Ocean’s 11
  • The Alamo
  • The Andy Griffith Show (first episodes)
  • The Flintstones (first episodes)

These works are famous, so thanks to projects like the National Film Registry, we’re not likely to lose them entirely. The true tragedy is that of forgotten films that are literally disintegrating while preservationists wait for their copyright terms to expire.3

It’s Now or . . . 2056?

What 1960 music could you have used without fear of a lawsuit? If you wanted to find guitar tabs or sheet music and freely use some of the great music from this year, January 1, 2017 would have been a rocking day for you under earlier copyright laws. Elvis Presley’s hit song It’s Now or Never (Wally Gold, Aaron Schroeder) would be available. So would Only the lonely (know the way I feel) (Roy Orbison, Joe Melson), Save the Last Dance for Me (Mort Shuman, Jerome Pomus), and Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini (Paul J. Vance, Lee Pockriss). Your school would be free to stage public performances of the songs from the musical Camelot (Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe). Or you could set a video to Harry Belafonte’s Grizzly Bear (Harry Belafonte, Robert DeCormier, Milt Okun) from Swing Dat Hammer. Today, these musical works remain copyrighted until 2056.4

Science from 1960—copyrighted research, still behind paywalls

1960 was another significant year for science. Max Perutz and Sir John Kendrew published articles on the structure of hemoglobin and the structure of myoglobin, respectively, and Robert Burns Woodward published an article describing a total synthesis of chlorophyll. (All three later won Nobel Prizes in Chemistry.) Theodore Maiman demonstrated the first working laser, a ruby laser. And the US launched its first successful weather satellite, TIROS-1.

If you follow the links above (and you do not have a subscription or institutional access), you will see that these 1960 articles are still behind paywalls. You can purchase the individual articles from the journal Nature for $32. A distressing number of scientific articles from 1960 require payment or a subscription or account, including those in major journals such as Science and JAMA. And the institutional access that many top scientists enjoy is not guaranteed—even institutions such as Harvard have considered canceling their subscriptions because they could no longer afford the escalating prices of major journal subscriptions.

It’s remarkable to find scientific research from 1960 hidden behind publisher paywalls. Thankfully, some publishers have made older articles available in full online, so that you can read them, even though it may still be illegal to copy and distribute them. In addition, some older articles have been made available on third party websites, but this is not a stable solution for providing reliable access to science. Third party postings can be difficult to find or taken down, links can get broken, and would-be posters may be deterred by the risk of a lawsuit. Under the pre-1978 copyright term, all of this history would be free to scholars, students, and enthusiasts.

Not all scientific publishers work under this kind of copyright scheme. “Open Access” scientific publications, like those of the Public Library of Science, are under Creative Commons licenses, meaning that they can be copied freely from the day they are published.

Works from 1988!

Most of the works highlighted here are famous—that is why we included them. And if that fame meant that the work was still being exploited commercially 28 years after its publication, the rights holders would probably renew the copyright. But we know from empirical studies that 85% of authors did not renew their copyrights (for books, the number is even higher—93% did not renew), since most works exhaust their commercial value very quickly.

Under the law that existed until 1978 . . . Up to 85% of all copyrighted works from 1988 might have been entering the public domain on January 1, 2017.

That means that all of these examples from 1960 are only the tip of the iceberg. If the pre-1978 laws were still in effect, we could have seen 85% of the works published in 1988 enter the public domain on January 1, 2017. Imagine what that would mean to our archives, our libraries, our schools and our culture. Such works could be digitized, preserved, and made available for education, for research, for future creators. Instead, they will remain under copyright for decades to come, perhaps even into the next century.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current copyright term is that in most cases, the cultural harm is not offset by any benefit to an author or rights holder. Unlike the famous works highlighted here, the vast majority of works from 1960 do not retain commercial value,5 but they are presumably off limits to users who do not want to risk a copyright lawsuit. This means that no one is benefiting from continued copyright, while the works remain both commercially unavailable and culturally off limits. The public loses the possibility of meaningful access for no good reason. You can read more about the current costs associated with orphan works—works that are still presumably under copyright, but with no identifiable or locatable copyright holder—here and here. Importantly, the US Copyright Office has been engaged in efforts to find solutions to the orphan works problem. However, unlike other countries, the US has not enacted any such solutions.


1 The copyright term for works published between 1950 and 1963 was extended to 95 years from the date of publication, so long as the works were published with a copyright notice and the term renewed (which is generally the case with famous works such as those we are highlighting).
Many works published in 1960 are already in the public domain because the copyright holder did not comply with notice, renewal, or other copyright formalities. However, tracking down this information can be difficult (you can read just one of many illustrative examples collected by the Copyright Office here). Therefore, users often have to presume these works are copyrighted or risk a lawsuit (only works published before 1923 are conclusively in the public domain). You can read more about copyright terms from this excellent chart and from the US Copyright Office’s guide.
It is also difficult to determine whether foreign works are in the public domain in the U.S. Generally speaking, as a result of international agreements, foreign works published after 1923 are still under copyright in the US as long as one of the following is true: they were published in compliance with US formalities, they were still copyrighted in their home countries as of 1996, or they were then published in the US within 30 days of publication abroad. You can learn more about copyright terms for foreign works from the Copyright Office guide here.

2 If you think publishers have not objected to this, you would be wrong. US copyright law has an exception that allows books to be reproduced in accessible formats, but this exception only applies to “authorized entities”—nonprofits or governmental agencies with a primary mission related to providing such services.

3 The law allows libraries and archives (not preservationists generally) to digitize works during the last 20 years of their copyright term, but only in limited circumstances: the library or archive first has to determine through a “reasonable investigation” that the work is not being commercially exploited and that they cannot obtain another copy of it at a reasonable price.

4 Under federal law at the time, these “musical compositions”—the music and lyrics—were subject to copyright, but the particular “sound recordings” embodying the musical compositions were not; federal copyright did not cover sound recordings until 1972. (Pre-1972 sound recordings are protected under some states’ laws.) So, for example, the musical composition “It’s Now or Never” written by Wally Gold and Aaron Schroeder would be federally copyrighted, but not Elvis Presley’s particular sound recording of that composition.

5 A Congressional Research Service study indicated that only 2% of works between 55 and 75 years old continue to retain commercial value. As explained above, many works from 1960 are technically in the public domain, but it is often difficult to conclusively determine public domain status, so users have to presume that they’re still under copyright.

Creative Commons LicenseThe Public Domain Day 2017 web pages by Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Happy Public Domain Day 2016

pdd2016January 1st is the day that works with expiring copyrights would enter the public domain. In the United states, the number of works entering the public domain is zero. Because of extensions in US Copyright law, no works will enter the public domain here until 2019. 😦

Every year, the Duke University Center for the Study of the Public Domain website writes about the works that would have entered the public domain under the old copyright laws.  This year, works from the year 1959 would have entered the public domain: Films like North by Northwest by Hitchcock, Books like Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, music like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, early episodes TV series like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone or Rawhide, classic science fiction like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Walter Miller’s exquisite Canticle for Leibowitz.

For me personally, Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz is a particular travesty because it is not yet available as an ebook, although you can get it in paper (from a publisher I’ve never heard of) or in audio. I suspect the book is an absolute rights nightmare. If you read the Wikipedia entry on the novel, it says that it was originally published as magazine articles, then as a hardcover, and has been published in both paper and hardcover over 40 times since then. The original book publisher itself has changed hands several times.  Even the NPR radio play version has been been removed from the Internet Archive due to rights issues.

Sigh.

Anyway, as you ponder the fact that the Kindle version of Starship Troopers that’s selling for $9.99 could actually be free in some alternate universe with different copyright laws, check out Duke’s article on the work that would have entered the public domain this year. There’s a special section for pre-1976 copyrights whose copyrights would have expired. The article addresses the orphan works issues as well.

Happy Birthday copyright case is settled

birthday-cake-380178_640News is breaking that the parties have settled in the Happy Birthday copyright case. The trial scheduled to begin December 15, 2015 has been canceled, according to a ruling filed in the case.

One of the factors that was to have been addressed in the trial would have been the issue of damages, possibly going all the way back to 1949.

Detail of the settlement have not yet been released, so at this point, we have no idea what this means (if anything) to the public at large as far as usage rights and the song’s public domain status.

More to come….

Daily Links: Public Domain in the Digital Age

From BoingBoing, an interesting piece on the public domain in the digital age and the concept of copyfraud.

Open Culture has an article on the Speech Accent Archive – The English accents of people who speak 341 different languages.

Amazon has 31 apps for free today (Saturday) via the Amazon App Store.

And on Making Use Of, you will find game, productivity and musical apps are on sale or free for the iPad. Note that I found that some of the pricing did not apply when purchased through a device other than an iPad.

My E-book finds of the day are The Golem and the Jinni (P.S.) and The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us from my to-be-read list. They are each on sale today for only $1.99.

Daily Links are interesting links I discover as I go about my online day. The frequency and number of links posted depend upon the daily news.