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 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.