What’s Old Is New Again! Now In The Public Domain!
Every year, copyrights expire on books, movies, music, plays and more. When this happens, it enters the public domain, where it can be read, viewed, and performed without licensing fees or royalties.
Last year, Winnie-the-Pooh made headlines because the copyright on the book ran out. NOTE: I need to stress that only the original book by A.A. Milne is in the public domain, the Disney version is still very much under copyright. Keep reading for an explanation on that.
Anyway, it made headlines because almost the instant that happened, someone announced they were making a horror movie titled Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. Yes, really.
The basics of copyrights
Now, I'm going to do a very boring thing and summarize US copyright law, or at least the parts most relevant to this topic. According to Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain, under current US copyright law:
- A work published before 1978 enters the public domain after a 95 year copyright term. That means most of the media that entered the public domain in the US on January 1st, 2023 was first published back in 1927.
- A work published after 1978 is copyrighted until 70 years after the creator's death.
- Only the original work enters the public domain. Works based on the original, like a movie or TV adaptation or a translation of the original into another language, would remain copyrighted. This is how the original Winnie-the-Pooh book is now public domain, but the Disney incarnation isn't.
- Only the creator's works from the year in question (1927 in this case) and earlier enter the public domain. Later works remain copyrighted. As an example, last year, one of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, entered the public domain. The Poirot novels that came after, like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, remain under copyright until their respective terms expire.
If, for some reason, you want to read the actual copyright laws, you can find them here.
On with the show!
Enough with the boring stuff. Now for what you came here to see. Here's what is a sample of works now in the public domain here in the US. You can find a more complete listing here and here.
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. With this, all Sherlock Holmes stories written by Doyle are now in the public domain.
The Big Four by Agatha Christie
The Tower Treasure by Franklin Dixon, the first Hardy Boys book.
The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, the book the Martin Scorsese movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio is based on.
Multiple plays by Sir J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan
The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, the first movie with synchronized dialogue and audio.
Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Outstanding Picture
The Battle of the Century, starring Laurel and Hardy, holds a Guinness World Record for 'Largest Number of Pies Thrown in a Custard Pie Sequence in a Movie" with 3000 pies.
Irving Berlin's Puttin' on the Ritz
Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's Ol' Man River
Jazz music by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and "Jelly Roll" Morton.
Keep your eyes peeled. Next year is potentially a big one, because Steamboat Willie, the first appearance of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, enters the public domain.