The Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain releases 2023’s list of creative works that became available for public use.
On January 1, 2023, United States copyrighted works from 1927 entered the U.S. public domain. What this means is that they will be free for anyone to copy, share or change for personal purposes like making a book into a movie, or adapting and reimagining the original works.
What is the US copyright law? For original works published before 1978, the copyright is in place until January 1 of the year after the conclusion of a 95-year copyright term as long as the copyright holders complied with the law’s notice and renewal requirements. This means that original works from 1927 have been copyrighted for 95 years. The copyrights expired in 2022 and entered the public domain on January 1, 2023. Adaptations, movies, or translations (derivative works) which contain newly added creative material and must contain some or all of the preexisting work, may be copyrighted beginning the year of their publication.
What is Public Domain?
According to Wikipedia:
“The public domain (PD) consists of all the creative work to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. Those rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may be inapplicable. …anyone can legally use or reference those works without permission.”
Copyright Law outside the U.S.
There is no international copyright law that protects a work everywhere in the world. Each country has its own copyright law.
For example, Steppenwolf (in the original German) by Herman Hesse was copyrighted in 1927 and entered the public domain in the U.S. in 2023. In the EU, however, the copyright is in place for 70 years after the creator’s death. Because Hesse died in 1962, Steppenwolf will not enter the public domain in the EU until January 1, 2032.
The Center for the Study of the Public Domain is part of the Duke School of Law and was founded in 2002 as part of the school’s intellectual property program. Its mission is to promote research on the contributions of the public domain to science, culture, speech, and innovation. It also promotes debate about our intellectual property system. The Center appears to be taking the stance that copyrights deny current artists and writers the ability to create by building on what already exists. I am not familiar enough with copyright law or intellectual property to have an informed opinion, and while I think 95 years is excessive, the creators of the intellectual property under copyright receive fees for the use of their work and that is part of how they earn a living from their art.
The Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain celebrates the expiration of creative works’ copyright law because, in their words:
“(sic)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 Archive, HathiTrust, Google 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. Most 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.”
An example of creating a new work from an existing story that is subject to copyright would be West Side Story, which was based on Romeo and Juliet. With the copyright on Shakespeare long expired (if one ever existed) the ability to reinvent inspires creativity and a West Side Story was made possible.
For now, just to whet your appetite, here are some of the more famous 1927 works that have just come off copyright:
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
A.A. Milne, Now We Are Six
Agatha Christie, The Big Four
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller)
The King of Kings (directed by Cecil B. DeMille)
The Best Things in Life Are Free
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Ol’ Man River
For more creative works click here.