Technology

Public Domain Day brings 1927 arts to the present day

Why it matters: When creative works enter the Public Domain (PD), exclusive intellectual property rights cease to exist. Users and creators can make (almost) whatever they want with such content, and 2023 is a particularly important year for a trove of classics liberated by the burden of copyright.

On January 1, 2023, the world of creative arts went back in time… all the way to the year 1927. On that day, thousands of books, movies, and musical compositions entered the public domain after their extended stay in the copyright realm. Many classics can be now be freely shared and accessed, opening the door to modern interpretations with no fear of lawsuits or additional expenses.

As explained by the Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, works that entered the public domain can be shared legally with no permission or fees. Community theaters can screen classic films, youth orchestras can perform music publicly, and online repositories such as the Internet Archive or Google Books can make works fully available online. Access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history has also been restored, promoting reuse and creativity just like copyright laws are designed to do on paper.

Notable works from 1927 which are now PD include Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the last Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, and works from Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Hermann Hesse, and Franz Kafka. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the sci-fi swan song of the silent film era, is also available, as is the aptly named musical composition The Best Things in Life Are Free from the musical Good News, and much, much more.

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While books and films are generally available in their original format, PD musical compositions include music sheets and lyrics but not actual recordings of the songs, which are covered by a separate copyright.

The “liberation” of Sherlock Holmes’ stories is particularly noteworthy as a recent extension of copyright terms led to legal clashes between the author’s estate curators and modern works like the spin-off series Enola Holmes by Netflix.

Works from 1927 were supposed to go into the public domain in 2003, after being copyrighted for 75 years, but the Copyright Term Extension Act approved by Congress further extended copyright terms to 95 years.

A new landmark for public domain is expected to come on January 1, 2024, when the first appearance of Mickey Mouse will be freed from Disney’s copyright. This will happen in the US, at least; Canada has recently approved a new extension of copyright terms for the next 20 years.

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